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    Thursday, June 20, 2024

    Review: Joel Edgerton battles through parallel worlds in the sci-fi thriller ‘Dark Matter’

    Blake Crouch has enjoyably adapted his own 2016 novel “Dark Matter” into a nine-episode series for Apple TV+, which aims to be your destination for classy sci-fi. It’s got nothing to do with “dark matter” except as Shakespeare might have used the phrase to describe some sinister business — “This dark matter doth shade our bright prospects,” something like that.

    Pseudoscientifically speaking, this is a parallel realities series, with a dose of domestic drama, some secret project shenanigans and a structure that recalls the Odyssey, in that it’s the story of a man facing monstrous obstacles and personal distractions as he attempts to get back to his wife and son and homeland. A complement of familiar quantum mechanical terms are dropped along the way, with only the hint of a thud: superposition, entanglement, liminal, multiverse — ideas that have become standard sci-plot devices and useful literary metaphors.

    Joel Edgerton plays Chicago physics professor Jason Dessen, married to Daniela (Jennifer Connelly) and father to Charlie (Oakes Fegley). Almost everywhere in television except “Abbott Elementary,” teaching is dramatic shorthand for failure, and we do get the sense that Jason is less than completely engaged at work. At the end of a day in which he 1) lectures significantly to half-interested students about Schrodinger’s dead-and-alive cat; 2) interacts with his family, showing us a comfortable household; and 3) learns that his friend Ryan (Jimmi Simpson) has won a million-dollar physics prize, which bugs him a bit, he is abducted and drugged by a masked man and wakes up, as they loved to say in the old Marvel comics, “Trapped in a world he never made!”

    Well, not to be coy about it, the man in the mask is — sort of — Jason himself (identified in the book as Jason 2), who has come from a reality in which he decided not to marry Daniela, with that choice creating a whole alternate timeline. (See: the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.) Though he becomes a big-shot physicist, he has been drowning in regret to the point of inventing a techno-magical gizmo capable of opening doors to other worlds — seemingly just to find one in which he did marry her, and substituting himself for that Jason. It’s a terrible idea!

    In the other world, where Jason doesn’t recognize people who (think they) know him and is confronted with radically different versions of people he (thinks he) knows, it is assumed by the natives that he has lost his mind. For a time, he’s inclined to agree. That is not exactly his beautiful house, and it is most certainly not his beautiful wife inside — it’s beautiful Amanda (Alice Braga), a psychologist attached to the techno-gizmo project. But before long, Jason will realize what’s what and set about figuring how to get back to where he once belonged. Obviously he isn’t going to just stay put, in this or any other alternate Chicago — we’ll visit a few — even though a viewer might be inclined, after awhile, to encourage him to settle. There are some tempting opportunities.

    There’s little new under the sci-fi sun, and there are echoes in “Dark Matter” of the movies “Sliding Doors,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and the granddaddy of “what if” movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There’s the “Star Trek” episode “Mirror, Mirror” (in which bad-world Kirk and good-world Kirk switch places) and the great Fox series “Fringe” and innumerable other films and television episodes that play with parallel worlds and realities.

    “Dark Matter” isn’t subtle. Crouch (whose earlier “Wayward Pines,” about being stuck in a single, town-sized reality, became a Syfy series) doesn’t waste time with subtext — not when he can have the characters spell out his themes of choice and regret.

    Because the main characters, and a few minor ones, have counterparts in each reality, there is much to keep straight, and no one should blame you if you don’t. (You can’t tell the players without two scorecards, to paraphrase the old saying.) Additionally, for dramatic effect the action will cut between realities without making it immediately clear where we are — a fake-out. It can make you tired after awhile, keeping things sorted, and “Dark Matter” does go on for a while, though Crouch is careful to turn his midlife crisis drama into an action film at regular intervals.

    Edgerton does a good job of delineating sad regular-guy Jason from hyper creepy-guy Jason (without making him too obviously creepy), and from creepy-guy-playing-regular-guy Jason, though, for different reasons, they all can grow wearing at times. (The main reason: the series is too long, almost as long as an entire season of “Doctor Who.” ) Connelly is very much a person you might want to search worlds to find; Braga is a ray of sun and sensibility where you might not expect to find one.

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