Joel Edgerton tangles with quantum physics, alternate reality and himself (kinda) in Dark Matter

Clarisse Loughrey’s Show of the Week column, published every Friday, spotlights a new show to watch or skip. This week: Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Connelly-starring sci-fi Dark Matter.

In Apple TV+’s luxurious, new sci-fi Dark Matter, a man is kidnapped by himself. Jason Dessen (Joel Edgerton) is en route home from the bar where his friend Ryan (Jimmi Simpson) has been hosting celebratory drinks—he’s been awarded some esteemed scientific prize that really should have been Jason’s. But he has a beautiful, adoring wife, Daniela (Jennifer Connelly), a well-behaved kid, Charlie (Oakes Fegley), and a steady job introducing college students to the concept of Schrödinger’s cat (supposedly none of them have even heard of the term before).

Suddenly, he’s dragged away by a masked man, who shunts him off to an alternate reality where he’s found professional success at the expense of the personal. Underneath the mask, as is fairly evident from the get-go, is another Jason who wishes he could have taken a different path in life. What follows is a cat-and-mouse situation of sorts, involving a large, imposing box and a lot of talk about the “superposition” in quantum physics. Yet, over the extended course of nine episodes, and a textbook full of exposition, it becomes clear that there’s not a whole lot to Dark Matter that can’t already fit inside the proverb “the grass is always greener on the other side”. We can spend an entire lifetime wondering if we made the right choices, but, ultimately, what’s done is done and we must live with the consequences.

The series is adapted from the novel by Blake Crouch, whose books are often categorised as page turners dipped in philosophical thought, not too heavy on the science (his Twin Peaks-inspired trilogy, Wayward Pines, was already turned into a series executive produced by M Night Shyamalan). And, certainly, there’s something arresting about how exactly Crouch, as showrunner and writer, steadily shapes his narrative like a piece of origami, as it grows more and more complex while still maintaining its structural integrity.

But there’s also a lot here that feels just a little too neat, like when Jason visits an art exhibition in which the TS Eliot line, “footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take”, is projected in gigantic, unavoidable letters. At one point, a character who’s mid-revelation sprints, in the snow, past a cinema marquee advertising It’s a Wonderful Life. Merry Christmas, movie house!

Strip away the multiverse flash and, suddenly, Dark Matter is just a reversed take on The Family Man, the 2000 rom-com about a businessman who suddenly wakes up with a wife and kids, remade for the plot hole-obsessed era. Now, it’s hard to have a sci-fi movie without a scene where a guy in a lab coat points enthusiastically at a whiteboard and circles some numbers (kudos to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet for having Clémence Poésy’s lab coat-wearer bypass the drudgery and simply say, “Don’t try to understand it.”)

You may start to wonder why all the alternate universes these characters are exposed to are just some variation on the apocalypse—too hot, too cold, too wet, too nuclear—but, don’t worry, a character will stop to explain exactly why that is. Then, you may wonder why nobody thinks of doing something really cool, instead of simply traversing from location A to location B, and then a character explains that away as well. Dark Matter makes sense. But that doesn’t in itself make for engaging television.

We’re awash with multiverses at the moment and, yet, it’s only the rare outlier (say, former Best Picture winner Everything Everywhere All at Once) that shows any interest in the possibility of the infinite. Here’s an excuse to probe the wildest corners of the imagination, that’s been consistently pared back and tapered down to serve a culture ruled by YouTube explanation videos and Reddit threads. Dark Matter is good enough, but with everything at its fingertips, couldn’t it have tried to think of something actually new?