A documentary about science for professionals and laypeople alike, “Particle Fever” celebrates an event of earth-shattering importance, though what far-ranging transformations it heralds remain unknown. The film follows six physicists from the scheduled startup of the CERN Large Hadron Collider to the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson (or “God particle”), the infinitesimal, hitherto-hypothetical cornerstone of the whole field of particle physics, and a key ingredient in the creation of the universe. A surefire crowdpleaser with ravishing imagery and immensely likable subjects (no monosyllabic NASA types here), “Fever” seems headed for wider orbits.
Following its successful fest run, the docu will receive a March 2014 release through Abramorama and BOND Strategy and Influence; the announcement of the acquisition deal coincided with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics to Peter W. Higgs and Francois Englert, the theoretical physicists who first proposed the existence of the Higgs boson.
In addition to its impressive size and scope (it’s the largest machine ever built by man), the LHC unites 10,000 scientists from 100 countries in excited, collaborative harmony. But if cooperation and coordination are the joyous order of the day, all is not smooth sailing. The media hoopla that greets the first one-way circling of the collider proves premature as the project is plagued by delays and malfunctions, providing the filmmakers with a wide range of emotional ups and downs, as well as plenty of “Houston we have a problem”-style suspense.
As the film progresses, helmer Mark A. Levinson and producer David E. Kaplan (both physicists themselves) pile on the stakes. The huge cost of LHC and the nonstop media buildup place additional pressure on the scientists to produce results, particularly since the collider offers no immediate military or commercial payoff.
When the Higgs boson tantalizingly hovers into view, Kaplan (who also appears as oncamera guide and protagonist) introduces another nail-biter. Apparently the weight of the mysterious particle will determine which of two contrasting theories will hold sway: “supersymmetry,” which posits a harmonious, stable, knowable world, or “multiverse,” which proposes a more chaotic, unstable one — and might well annihilate well-established concepts underlying scientists’ lifelong endeavors. Kaplan and long-haired lookalike physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed cheerfully debate supersymmetry vs. multiverse during the course of a friendly game of table tennis.
For nothing can put a damper on the enthusiasm of the savants. When LHC finally achieves collision, the film offers a closeup of young postdoc Monica Dunford exclaiming “We have data!” as billions of bits of raw knowledge streaming into linked-up computers around the world. Shut out of the breathlessly anticipated announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson because he arrived late, Savas Dimopoulos, a major figure in the experiment and the movie, philosophically sits down, opens his computer and watches, enthralled.
For all their concentration on the human factor, the filmmakers by no means shortchange the aesthetic dimensions of LHC. Through the lens of vet cinematographer Claudia Raschke-Robinson, the five-story-high Atlas complex takes on the artistic complexity and quasi-religious gravitas of a space-age stained-glass window. As physicists furiously scribble scientific formulae, Robert Miller’s nuanced score counterpoints with musical math. Ace editor Walter Murch interweaves the docu’s scattered protagonists and disparate story threads with enough kinetic energy to generate suspense and enough breathing room to invite spontaneity.