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Particle Fever - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Particle Fever
Directing: B-
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

There's a strange dichotomy to Particle Fever, in that although the straightforward science largely flies over the heads of layman viewers, there is still a definitive sense of the filmmakers -- ultimately, director Mark Levinson in particular -- taking excessive pains to dumb it all down. There is nothing dumbed down, per se, about the content itself, but the cinematic presentation is rather contrived, at times even a little corny. To a great degree, this is due to Robert Miller's score, used transparently to dramatize or heighten excitement or sense of failure on the part of the scientists. I'm not sure we want a science documentary to have much in common with, say, The Notebook.

One might quickly point out that such a comparison is false because there is no romance in Particle Fever, but I would beg to differ. This is a romance, albeit a platonic one -- and it's between several select scientists, chosen to be the focal personalities of this film, and the Large Hadron Collider.

This is a massive particle collider, 17 miles in circumference, constructed over 500 feet underground near Geneva between 1998 and 2008. One person on screen calls it the largest machine ever built by man. Prior to 1998, an even larger one was attempted in Texas, but derailed by conservative politicians with no foresight. The small segment of the film dedicated to this embarrassing interlude of recent U.S. history is enough to make you weep for the characteristic ignorance of Americans. We're talking about what would potentially yield the greatest scientific discovery of the 21st Century -- literally demystifying secrets of the universe -- and it's being dismissed as a waste of time, energy and resources.

I am one of those ignorant Americans, just to be clear. But also to clarify, I make no claim that any of this is a waste. The whole endeavor is awe-inspiring on multiple levels, even though I hardly understand any of it scientifically. On the other hand, as a film connoisseur, that is the lens through which I watched this, and I found myself more critical in that context than many others seem to be. There is a moment when everyone is waiting with bated breath for the very first beam to shoot through the collider's pipes, and when it is finally seen on a monitor, there is a sound-effect blip! that no doubt was not actually heard by anyone actually in the room when it happened -- because on film, that's all it is: a sound effect. There are brief sequences where subjects are clearly, in one way or another, re-enacting the story that's being told, when it would have more effectively been shown in real time, even if it meant, say, poorer cinematography or picture quality. These are minor elements but enough of them are present to make Particle Fever seem, at times, unnecessarily manipulative. Levinson just seems particularly intent on conveying how exciting this is for all these super-nerds.

To be fair, that's a clear challenge for such high-level, esoteric science to be conveyed in any comprehensible way to general audiences. And if Levinson does anything right, he effectively builds up to a genuine sense of discovery. The film starts in 2007, just before construction is finished, and then focuses on seven scientists involved in different aspects of the experiments for which the Large Hadron Collider is intended. The best understanding I could glean was that they use this machine to mash particles together at nearly the speed of light, and take millions of snapshots of the collisions, in an effort to discover the theorized Higgs particle. The Higgs is presented, here at least, as the missing link in our understanding of the universe: something that, if proven to exist, would provide unprecedented insight into the creation of the universe and the laws of nature. The cameras follow theoretical physicists and experimental physicists, and that's about the extent of my understanding. I only took Physics 101 in college, and I would have flunked if not for being graded on a massive curve.

That said, Particle Fever still makes a strong case for the legitimacy of these experiments, and in spite of the unnecessary cinematic flourishes, the palpable thrill on the part of the scientists on screen is clearly genuine -- and infectious. One of them, a week before the first time the machine is turned on, likens the excitement among them all to a six-year-old whose birthday is next week that they just knowis going to be great. This comparison is more than apt, and easily seen on all of their faces.

There then follows some successes, and some setbacks, and the film follows these seven scientists over the course of the next four years. A huge announcement is made on July 4, 2012 ("Higgsdependence Day," you might be amused to find online, as I did), when the Higgs particle is theorized to have been discovered -- with a weight smack in the middle of two widely expected possibilities. The announcement is made at 9 a.m. Geneva time, and thus 3 a.m. Eastern, where many very tired but eager scientists gather to watch live streamed online. This is essentially the climax of Particle Fever, but the very beginning of a broad sense of massive scientific breakthrough.

Nothing in this film gives a definitive sense of anything changing the world, which to some might be disappointing. But it might very well be the beginning of a whole new understanding of the universe, which is, you know, perhaps a more important thing.

The Large Hadron Collider is the star of PARTICLE FEVER.

Overall: B
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