The premise to "Particle Fever," Milwaukee Film’s members screening selection last week, doesn’t exactly scream spectacular entertainment. A film about scientists questing through a world of classrooms and computer screens for an invisible theoretical particle and debating harder-than-diamond scientific theory sounds less destined for the big screen and more doomed for high school classrooms, playing to drowsy students on a pre-break half day.
Yet Mark Levinson’s documentary about the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 and the experiment’s five-year buildup defies its educational film expectations. Yes, side effects likely include a rudimentary understanding of the current state of particle physics, but it’s never simply a dense, dry lecture. Rather, "Particle Fever" weaves together an intellectually and emotionally engaging story that efficiently translates years of scientific anticipation, frustration and excitement – even to viewers whose understanding of stuff like protons extends as far as the Ghostbusters’ weapon of choice.
The mission is the Higgs boson, boldly nicknamed "God particle." The experiment’s methodology is almost amusingly simplistic: smash two beyond microscopic particles together and see what flies out of the wreckage. However, the machinery behind it – a monumental, ring-shaped particle collider a decade and over 100 nations in the making, built underground near Geneva, Switzerland – is anything but basic.
If discovered, the Higgs boson could point physicists in the direction of answering some of mankind’s greatest questions about the universe. If not, those same physicists will have to take a long, sobering look in the mirror, realizing that decades of theories and research have led them barking up the wrong tree. Simplified even more, it serves as a progress check: Either the experiment shows science is on the right track, or it’s back to page one. Or the ridiculous third option that it forms a black hole that eats the planet (spoiler alert: It doesn’t).
There are some big conceptual ideas at play in "Particle Fever," yet much of the film focuses on the little people making it happen. Levinson’s movie gets down in the trenches with the scientists, from the people running the experiments out in Switzerland to a duo of theorists dreaming up ideas from a distance (one particularly horrifying one involving multi-verses could basically make physics null, void and impossible to predict).
Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch manages to take seven years of footage, compress that and find the fascinating story, one that bounds back and forth easily between the experiment and the ideas, naturally blending explaining the dense concepts with simple yet effective graphics with personalities without sacrificing anything in the process. Early on, "Particle Fever" wrangles tension from merely waiting for a bleep on a computer screen.
The result is a story that moves and carries a surprisingly dramatic charge.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Sept. 2, 2014
Like a distracted person into a glass door, we've smashed face-first into the desolate cinematic wasteland also known as early fall. The summer blockbuster season - a surprisingly strong one in terms of quality, if not box office - is officially dead, leaving audiences with a rather meager selection of dire options for the next several weeks. Case in point: "The November Man."
Published Sept. 1, 2014
Butch Vig has a lot on his plate. He just finished wrapping up a new Foo Fighters album, and he's heading back into the studio to start recording a new Garbage album. However, tucked away in that packed schedule is just enough time to head back to Milwaukee for the upcoming Yellow Phone Music Conference.
Published Aug. 31, 2014
That's it. I've had it. I've had enough. Game over, man, game over. Sure, there was a time when found footage was a fun novelty, back in the original days of "Cloverfield" and the first couple of "Paranormal Activity" films. But now, movies like "As Above, So Below" just show what a waste the gimmick truly is.
Published Aug. 29, 2014
The dynamic duo is returning to its home away from home next weekend, with a show on Friday, Sept. 5 at The Pabst Theater (moved from its original location at the Cactus Club after it sold out). And they're coming back with gallons of deservedly good press, an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" and the deafening buzz of a band obviously on the rise.
Published Aug. 29, 2014
"The Doyle & Debbie Show," the season opener for the Milwaukee Rep, is making history. "Is this the first time a toilet's been on the Stackner stage? Probably," said JC Clementz, the show's director. The prop potty, however, nicely sets the tone for "The Doyle & Debbie Show," a goofy Christopher Guest-esque parody about a washed-up country duo.
Published Aug. 28, 2014
Late Wednesday afternoon, representatives from MillerCoors, Milwaukee County Parks, UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences and Milwaukee County held a press conference, announcing new initiatives, and namely a new $500,000 contribution from MillerCoors, to clean up South Shore Park.
Published Aug. 27, 2014
"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" - Robert Rodriguez's hyper-stylized and hyper-violent hyper-noir - has many, many sins of its own to contemplate and consider, the most glaring of which perhaps being a severe case of tardiness. Then again, even if it was perfectly on time, "A Dame to Kill For" would still feel just as relentlessly grim, one-note and pointless.
Published Aug. 26, 2014
For about half of the year, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band calls its New Orleans namesake home, playing bright brassy jazz to the residents of the Big Easy. For the other half of the year, however, the legendary jazz band brings that cajun flavor and music across the country to cities needing a little extra kick.
Published Aug. 25, 2014
Yes, the expected dopey melodrama finds its way into "If I Stay," but it mostly plays second fiddle to an above average relationship drama, one with seemingly real characters (well, real for a teen romance) coping with seemingly real issues and problems. I didn't mind having to spend time with these dreamy young people, which is a lot more than I can say about anything Nicholas Sparks has done lately.
Published Aug. 23, 2014
There is good news for guitarist/vocalist Andrew Foys and Milwaukee music fans who landed squarely on "hated it" when it came to his band's previous name, Elusive Parallelograms: the name has run its course. The multi-genre spanning psychedelic rock band recently underwent a "reboot," kicking the old moniker to the curb and reintroducing themselves as Tapebenders - complete with an upcoming new album.