Open City Docs Fest: Particle Fever Review

With plenty of flashy infographics and inspirational monologues, Particle Fever is pop science at its most populist. Following the progress of the Hadron Collider experiment from 2008 through 2012, a mammoth, multi-billion dollar machine with the potential for cosmic significance; Mark Levinson’s film hones in on a few scientists involved, and uses them to try to convey the cosmic importance of the work that has been done. Sporadically exciting, and perpetually accessible, Particle Fever makes a commendable effort to animate that which is so hard the articulate, the excitement and wonder of science.

The major marvel of Levinson’s (a physicist turned filmmaker) documentary is its ability to convey successfully how remarkable it is that the Hadron Collider came to exist at all; an expensive, volatile and inordinately complex machine with potentially no applicable use other than to slam particles together. Shots of the Collider in all its enormous glory are awe-inspiring – the scale and spectacle of the mechanical science-monster conveyed better than ever been before through sweeping closeups of the intricate inner workings and wide shot compositions that capture well the momental scale of the machine.

If his camera conveys the majesty of the operation, what Levinson’s amicable subjects manage to get across is that breakthrough comes from non-economically orientated experimentation, and that the Collider is the ultimate expression of that. ‘What is the LSC good for? It could be nothing, other than understanding everything’ announces David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist and a focus for the documentary, with characteristic pizazz. Experimentation for the sake of experimentation, regardless of the likelihood of the resulting outcome having any application other than helping people to understand how things work. After a while it is explained that there is one particular hope, that the collision will prove the existence of the Higgs-Boson, or ‘God Particle.’

The issue becomes less about proving the existence of the particle, but what the data surrounding said particle said suggest. It emerges that whether the particle, once found and reliably recorded, weighs 140 or 125 (on some scale and in some unit) will suggest a) that the understanding that physicists can achieve may have reached its limits and b) many theorists entire bodies of works will be proved invalid. ‘Jumping from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the big secret to success,’ says Savas Dimopolous a revered physicist, potentially on the brink of coming to understand that the last forty years of his career has been fruitless. Obviously a) is much more distressing a possibility than b), but when the work is presented on human terms, through the lens of as humbling a screen presence as Dimopolous, as this doc makes strides to, b) is quite upsetting as well.

His decision to use Kaplan and others in the field or on the ground, to provide the narrative to the story, rather than an overlaid expository narration track, is both wise and limiting. Having such a human and individual focus brings the subject to life, pitting experimentalist against theorist, the philosophical physicists who hypothesise, and the grounded ones who test and analyse, and later those who favour a tidy, symmetrical understanding of the particle-universe or those who risk considering the chaos of a multi-verse, or multiple randomly orchestrated universes well out of hope of ever being grasped, let alone observed, by physics. It also lessens the possibility for structure, as there is no centralising voice to focus upon. Indeed the film, feeling long at around one hour forty, segways regularly away from the central ‘plot’ of the particle accelarator, and for an interlude in the middle, forgets largely about the project entirely as it explores the ideologies and histories of the characters involved. Its all context, and enriches the films as a whole, but there could be a tighter, more engaging film made purely about the experiment at half the length and twice the pace.

Odd really, since Levinson is aided by the legendary editor of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now Walter Murch, who does terrific work in creating intrigue through his cuts, but was not pressured perhaps on trimming down. For example – the cut from serious inaugural speech to physicists rapping about particles (which may be the most cringeworthy thing ever recorded) – shows the dynamism of the editing at work here, but not so much the selectivity. At the best moments, Levinson and Murch construct a thriller-esque micronarrative (the hunt for the higgs-boson particle, and what finding it could reveal about humanity’s origin) which are stakes as great as any narrative film could offer, and successfully manage to recreate the excitement of the most momentous moments  of the Hadron campaign. The accompanying overblown score however, could have been done without. Use of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, (known to some as ‘the Peggle song,) at the point of collision completely undermines the majesty of the event.

Damning also to the integrity of the experiment and documentary is much of the effects work used as overlays to lighten the more academic moments of the film. Much of these are hokey, and already look cheap and dated. Kapler walking through park with formulae floating around him for example, the grass around him transforming into fields of green numbers. At their best these effects are slightly hokey, but at their most distracting they undermine the value of the information being expressed.

If Particle Fever is a film of a conflicts and collisions, interesting to observe is the battle between press and science, at points the experiment seemingly compromised by the pressure to conform to the presses demands. Many of the scientists involved squirm at the idea of an experiment undertaken so resolutely and dramatically in the eye of the public. –  dubbed ‘a great day for physicists around the world’ before anything has even occured. One scientist offers the parallel of Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb in front of hundreds of camera crews. ‘Come on. Come on. You can’t even turn it on?’ Many involved plot unsuccessfully to turn the machine on secretly at night, out of the pressured focus of the public eye. They don’t always shy away from dramatics though, and the most senior scientists seem to learn to become media-savvy. On confirmation of observation of the Higgs Boson particle (spoiler warning) the conference’s chair announces, (in a moment that has now become televisual history) ‘i think we have it.’

This line is a little like Particle Fever, which is stirring at its heights and virtuous as an accessible record of incredible scientific work, but by its end slightly simplified to a fault. Levinson makes such a great effort to be inclusive, by focusing on personalities over statistics, visuals over information, that at some points its simply not all that informative. Particle Fever may be at risk of alienating both audiences, the casual and the curious. It is hard to avoid feeling that if you’re only going to skim over the hard stuff, then a five minute news report might suffice.

Particle Fever plays Open City Docs Fest on Sunday 22nd June, as part of the ‘Science Friction‘ strand.

About The Author

Owns two copies of Gremlins on DVD, in case of loss or damage. Current interests outside of film include: pigs, coffee and running hands through clothes racks in department stores. Interests change weekly.

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