Surprisingly accessible and suspenseful take on what should be an impenetrable subject.
Particle physics isn’t a subject that seems particularly cinematic. It’s not especially glamorous, and it’s probably safe to say that most people have no idea what it involves and have little interest in finding out. Enter Particle Fever, a new documentary that follows a group of physicists who devote their lives to this very practice. And while it may not make physics look glamorous, necessarily, Particle Fever does succeed at presenting a compelling peek into the groundbreaking and surprisingly interesting work that these scientists do.
Starting in 2007, Particle Fever tracks about half a dozen scientists as they attempt to pin down the Higgs particle, a subatomic particle that was long thought to exist but had never been proven. Their work is complex, and the film does provide some relatively comprehensible scientific explanation, but all the casual viewer really needs to know is this: this discovery is a big deal. The audience may not be able to wrap their minds around what this research means to the scientific community – and even the scientists themselves cannot completely justify why some people have spent decades of their life searching for this particle – but the film effectively conveys the magnitude of the discovery.
Where the film really succeeds is in its focus on the people behind the research and the humanity that they bring to their work. Without this, Particle Fever would play out like a boring science class video and merely be a collection of infographics and images of people looking at computer screens. Yes, the scientific achievement here is impressive, but it’s the people involved that provide the stakes of the movie. The pressure that many of these people put on themselves is immense, proving that while physics is not a glamorized field in our culture, for the people who live it, it is absolutely the most important thing. At one point in the documentary, the research hits a roadblock, and it’s disarming and heartbreaking to watch an elderly physicist lament the possibility that his 40 years of research in the field may have been for naught.
Particle Fever wisely hones in on a select group of people to focus on, and while they certainly add a welcome dose of humanity to the film, director Mark Levinson perhaps could have focused even more on them as subjects and provided more background. The science is fascinating and their accomplishments are impressive, but it’s the glimpses of humour and the unexpected candid moments where Particle Fever really shines.
Ultimately, Particle Fever feels a little at odds with itself as it navigates between conveying the sweeping grandness of the scientific discovery at hand and giving proper due to the people behind said discovery. For the most part, though, it does an impressive job of balancing both within its sleek runtime, even managing to wax poetic at times about what it all means. You don’t need to bring any prior knowledge to the film to enjoy it, and, perhaps against all odds, Particle Fever is a surprisingly accessible and suspenseful take on what should be an impenetrable subject.