Liu Xing (Liu Ye) is a Chinese student who enrolls in an American university to study cosmology (the study of the Universe) under Professor Jacob Reiser (Aiden Quinn). He lives with several other Chinese students, becomes friends with wealthy university patron Johanna Silver (Meryl Streep), and begins to become friendly with a waitress at the local coffee shop. Liu eventually becomes Reiser's protege, and soon begins developing his own theories of the origin of the Universe. He wants to do his doctoral thesis about dark matter (areas of the universe where matter does not exist), but since it would contradict the professor's theory, it is rejected. Liu's biggest rival is fellow Chinese student Laurence, who's thesis is accepted even though it's just a rehash of the professor's theory.
Liu, determined to get his theory published, goes behind the professor's back and has his paper published in a science magazine. Even though the article is widely praised, this causes the professor and his classmates to turn on him. Liu's dejection from this is made worse when the waitress rejects his advances and his roommates all get lucrative jobs in the science community. Despite feeling left behind at the university and with nowhere to go, he rejects Johanna's offer of a non-scientific job back in China because he doesn't want to disappoint his parents.
When Liu learns that the best thesis in the class will be awarded to Laurence, he snaps. Liu goes to the class where Laurence is giving his dissertation, pulls out a gun and kills Laurence. He then shoots Professor Reiser and the other two members of the dissertation committee, killing all three.
The movie ends with Liu going into the professor's office and killing himself.