Particle Fever makes for surprisingly gripping cinema

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In English, French, Italian, and German, with English subtitles. Rated PG.

In the rarefied world of quantum physics, “The ability to leap from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm is the key to success.” This is according to one scientist prominently featured in an absorbing doc that takes as its locus the Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland, where some pretty amazing breakthroughs—and a few duds—have happened in the past few years.

The subtext is the struggle to keep pure learning alive with no promise of tangible return, except the possibility of knowledge that will forever alter our understanding of life. You might not expect to get feverish over arguments between one camp that believes in a relatively neat “dual-symmetry” theory of the universe and another that sees it as an open-ended “multiverse” in which all bets are off.

Particle Fever makes for surprisingly gripping cinema in the hands of writer-director Mark Levinson, a veteran sound technician and physicist who previously directed one drama. His narrative instincts—spread over five years of filming—are strong as he focuses on a few scientists and technicians, including Garfunkel-haired David Kaplan, who coproduced the film (and may get a disproportionate amount of screen time). The talking heads are aided by nifty graphics, provocative music, and the notably deft editing of Walter Murch, the Oscar winner who cut The English Patient and the Godfather movies.

Although the film occasionally travels elsewhere, its main activities take place at the huge site of CERN, near Lake Geneva—built there largely because right-wingers have managed to kill off nonprofit science in the U.S. Its hivelike realities, with staff drawn from a hundred nations, make it resemble a space station on Earth. Its presence is a reminder that our planet is but a puny station, hurtling heedlessly through space.

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