Particle Fever‘s investigation of the years-long experiments at the Large Hadron Collider takes it not just to the work-site in Switzerland, but to a number of university physics institutes in America, including Stanford University. Curiously and perhaps to its detriment, it’s matched for its emotional feel with this clip from Stanford’s YouTube channel, where theoretical physicists Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh are told by an associate professor that Professor Linde’s decades-old concept of cosmic inflation has been proven true. None of Chao-Lin Kuo’s statements to Linde make any sense to an uneducated mind, but the excitement and relief certainly does. Kuo’s giddy chuckle. The hug he gets from Professor Kallosh. Linde shouting “Point TWO?!” That self-evident euphoria, and that capping of lifetimes of human discovery, is something Particle Fever has some but needs more of. It nicely delineates the theoretical and experimental streams of universal physics, and the legendary Walter Murch’s symphonic editing helps makes them that much more understandable. Where it falters is an over-eagerness to please, displayed through jackhammer-subtle visual manipulations, and a reluctance to lay the hurried timeline of events more bare so their significance might speak for themselves.
Certainly there are glimpses of awe, particularly in the sheer physical scale of the project. Director Mark Levinson shows that off with aplomb, with wide shots of the complex electronics and kilometres-wide underground ring of tubes. As the friendly staff explain in a mix of talking heads and straight-to-camera addresses, this ring is intended to smash molecules together, hopefully to find the building blocks of the universe determined by theoretical physicists (not to be confused with experimental ones, as American physicist Monica Dunford amusingly highlights). As we hear their spiels, we also get bits and pieces about the people saying them, including their professional histories and hobbies. Time is shared between experimentalists in Switzerland and theorists at the American colleges, the latter of whom scrape out formulae on blackboards and talk avidly about their hopes and fears for the project. The overall tone is one of wonder and geniality, and the enthusiasm of the culturally diverse physicists is largely to thank for its digestibility. Even their company variety show, which consists largely of a cringe-worthy rap performance with Higgs-Boson dancers, hardly detracts from proceedings because there’s nothing especially sober for it to detract from.
Where it gets a bit more interesting is the friction between the nuts-and-bolts process of mounting the LHC and the press’ portrayal of it. More than just the nutso rumours that it will spark an apocalyptic black hole, there’s the tension between the enterprising, try-it-and-see mindset of these experimentalists and the fiscal reality, because for all of the millions spent on the Collider it just isn’t clear whether it will turn up anything useful. That conflict runs through many of the news bulletins, which are played over establishing shots in one of a handful of documentary tropes that Levinson draws on. The tension is also dealt with in literal terms when an economist quizzes John Hopkins University professor David Kaplan on the point of it all, but the PR dilemma dogs them in the years to follow, with false starts and months-long repairs having to be amended with the pomp and circumstance of early operations. The skepticism and worry born out of this is intriguing, but fleeting because of the film’s insistence to go bouncing along to the next snazzy infographic, or montage of rankly obvious symbolism. They’re not fatal, but they sit throughout as thankfully brief dips into formal shallowness. Grievous examples of this include a late and feeble invocation of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, as well as a moment when Kaplan and Nima Arkani-Hamed observe a piece of installation art, highlighting their curious philosophies in the charming, open manners of great teachers, only for the art piece’s granite slabs to be picked up by invisible VFX fingers for yet another showy transition and sequence of cutesy infographics. It’s not that the animated visualisations of these heavy concepts aren’t well-made – and though it goes without saying, I would struggle to come up with an alternative solution for conveying them – but they take us away from more realistic moments that show a quieter, more effective kind of profundity.
The peppy tone also does the bare minimum to create a sense of the number of years the movie covers. As demonstrated by the animated segments, it is more enthusiastic about analogising the theory than charting its progression over that time. This is made clear when we delve into the competing hypotheses posed by Professors Savas Dimopolous and Arkani-Hamed, as to the property of Higgs-Boson and what that will pose for the nature of the universe itself. Levinson essentially leaves the proceedings in their hands, and the film becomes something like a well-produced lecture on the subject. The film is thick with engaging material, but largely delivers it with lack of intimacy and keeps us at the same emotional remove we were at to begin with.
There are moments that deliver just enough more for the movie to be worthwhile, drawing upon Murch’s graceful editing to make up for the minor lack of cinematic nous. The ending climax at a 2013 summit is fairly effective, and another peak comes at the first press-attended test of the Collider, where the the simplest of visually-represented stakes are established and made good on to the triumphant tune of “Ode to Joy”. Because Particle Fever has those select moments of inspiration, it raises the demand on itself for a more compelling feature-length work than what it ultimately delivers. Those curious won’t leave as uninformed as they came, but they’ll probably be less moved than they would have liked.
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