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'Dark Matter' season 1 review: Joel Edgerton is the final boss of wife guys in Apple TV+ sci-fi thriller

Joel Edgerton crouching inside a box, shining a flashlight on some equipment
Apple TV+

Find yourself someone who loves you as much as the studio executives over at Apple TV+, who shall remain nameless, love their sci-fi scripts and intellectual property. The first season of sci-fi thriller series Dark Matter is another item in that particular basket as it marries two prevalent things in our current pop culture landscape: lonely, sad guys and stories about the multiverse.

Jason Dessen (Joel Edgerton) is the ultimate Wife Guy™, a former physicist and current college professor who is living a very mundane and cosy middle-class life in Chicago alongside his wife Daniela (Jennifer Connelly) and teenage son Charlie (Oakes Fegley). But said mundanity soon comes to a halt when one night, as Jason emerges from a bar where he's celebrating his friend Ryan's (Jimmi Simpson) career achievement, he is kidnapped and wakes up in a big, mysterious box in a Chicago that isn't quite what he remembers. The kidnapper? Well, that is of course another version of him from that universe, a renowned physicist who's decided to steal Jason 1's life. Jason must now learn the secrets of travelling through different universes in the aforementioned box so he can reunite with his family whilst he finds companionship from psychologist Amanda (Alice Braga), Jason 2's colleague and girlfriend-although-it's-complicated.

Showrunner Blake Crouch is adapting his own novel of the same name here and the first bit of good news about said translation from the book to this specific medium is that the very first episode is already a miracle that's breaking time and space in the sense that it feels like classic, old-fashioned TV. You could easily see it spawning a long-running series both now and back in the day because it's tight, visually coherent and neatly written 45 minutes of character introductions, relatable conversations and a cliffhanger-ish ending that'll have viewers, such as yours truly, anticipating the next episode.

That is however when things get tricky because the drop-off in quality from episode one to episode two is rather astronomical. It's also old-school, just not in a good way, since it's pretty much all filler and no killer because it's an endless loop of Jason asking ridiculously dumb questions for such a smart guy, yelling people's names and expressing confusion. It's the kind of lazy and repetitive writing that also undercuts Edgerton's acting because there's no sincerity or charm to dig in that sort of mess. This is especially maddening when you see that Edgerton can otherwise carry the show on his shoulders, portraying the character's fear, determination and emotional intelligence whilst he also gets to play a more brooding and manipulative part whenever we follow Jason the impostor.

The other bit of good news is that Crouch and his writers' room (including Jacquelyn Ben-Zekry) find the groove again when Jason and Amanda begin to explore the endless possibilities of the universe and the show itself. Dark Matter leans heavily on entertainment instead of anything too heady, utilising pop physics 101 for its multiverse science while acceptably manipulating you with very simple character motivations; Jason wants to get back to yapping to his wife whom he loves so much and Amanda is along for the thrill since she's perhaps looking for a less selfish version of Jason or just something new and exciting in general. Meanwhile, Daniela is appreciating the newfound intimacy in her marriage before starting to see the cracks in Jason 2's façade. All of them—including Jason 2 to some extent—are dealing with the simple case of missing something only when it's gone.

But wait, what about Charlie and other offspring that might or might not exist in these universes? Don't worry, there's not a galaxy-shattering twist we're hiding, it's merely that Jason and Daniela's connection, as well as Jason and Amanda's, is the series' real heartbeat. A part of that sadly is that Fegley is significantly less adept actor than Edgerton, Connelly and Braga are, in terms of emotion and voice in particular, which is a problem in a show that wears its heart on its sleeve. The writing shares some of the blame as well because Crouch and co. clearly put more time into the adults and their relationships so Charlie is simply an afterthought, and the directors (including Jakob Verbruggen and Alik Sakharov) rarely give Fegley anything interesting to do in his scenes.

Most of Dark Matter's nine-episode first outing is fortunately extremely watchable and absorbing with a pitch-perfect first episode, a capable cast and catchy storytelling leading the charge as it keeps opening doors and untying knots which the characters have tied. There's a lot of subtle and less subtle but equally effective changes in Patricio M. Farrell's production design—homes still look like homes, bars smell like bars, danger feels dangerous and so on—and Stephani Lewis' costumes which reveal different shades and cracks in the characters, plus some cool world-building via VFX (supervised by John Heller), all of which help to make Jason's journey back home quite thrilling and unpredictable. Money is definitely on the screen from episode four onwards.

The show does threaten to collapse under the weight of it all towards the end but there's enough smart fun and dumb fun to go with it. Just as long as Jasons don't take Manhattan or go to hell in these universes, we might as well keep watching.

Smileys: Story, production design

Frowneys: Oakes Fegley

1. Cut a hole in that box. 2. Put your junk in that box. 3. Make her open the box. It's Jason 2 in the box.


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