Mark Levinson’s “Particle Fever” is the first great doc of the year (and let’s hope it gets remembered next awards season). It’s about the ground-breaking, Nobel Prize-winning experiment that helped unravel the nature of existence. Veteran editor-sound designer Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now”), who’s always had a fascination for physics, was brought on to “galvanize” the project but ended up spending a year humanizing this compelling work about the collision of science and art.
“Particle Fever” follows six leading scientists during the launch of the Large Hadron Collider (built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research from 1998 to 2008). This marked the start-up of the biggest and most expensive experiment in history (costing around $10 billion), with 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries joining forces to recreate conditions that existed just moments after the Big Bang and find the elusive Higgs boson, the key particle that holds the universe together, potentially explaining the origin of all matter.
“I knew director Mark Levinson for 30 years — he was an ADR editor but graduated at Berkeley with a doctoral in particle physics in the mid-’80s,” Murch recalls. “I grilled him on the string theory of time. I knew from 2007 on that he was working on this film. I kept in touch and he sent me a cut in early 2012 to get my opinion. Then a job fell through and I became available to work on it for three months as a consultant…sifting through 300 hours of footage.”
“Particle Fever” is actually quite suspenseful for such a cerebral subject. The arc of the story was clearly “the vicissitudes of the machine.” After getting up and running, the Collider suffers a leak and breaks down (that’s where Murch decided to sneak in the scientific backstory after gathering invaluable comments from a slew of test screenings). His mandate was to “visceralize” the experience, which he accomplished through pacing, a ticking clock, music and sections that alternate graphics and photography, creating little safe zones within the film.
Then there were the scientists, who had so much at stake and who fall into two particle theory camps (the single universe of “super-symmetry” and the expanding universe notion of “multi-verse”): Monica Dunford, an American, is one of the youngest and most enthusiastic participants; Savas Dimopoulos, a veteran Greek physicist, who Murch calls the Yoda of the group, worries that he won’t live long enough to witness the breakthrough; and Nima Arkani-Hamed, whose family escaped from Iran during the revolution of ’79, also has a lot riding on the experiment.
“I like the mysterious middle section where Nima says the contradictions in the current theory keep him up all night,” Murch continues. “And Savas recalls being upset as a child when his mother talked about eternity. That collision of sounds and ideas that are going on are not only very fruitful in understanding the movie but also in understanding what’s really driving these scientists. Savas is running from eternity, which is frightening to him and embraces ‘super-symmetry.’ And Nima heads off in the ‘multi-verse’ and tries to tame it.”
It’s about the need to stay close to home and manage it as opposed to escaping from home.
Finally, there’s the pursuit of the Higgs, which leaves the universe hanging by a thread. It’s both the creator and the destroyer, which Murch calls “Shiva-like” in reference to the most powerful Hindu god. But they didn’t have an ending until the big breakthrough in the summer of 2012 when the Higgs was discovered and all of the parameters of the experiment had been met.
“We got wind of this about two weeks ahead of time and Mark filmed the event in Geneva with a camera crew,” Murch recalls “Suddenly we had an ending and the implications of that worked its way into the film.”
Still, there was the perennial question: Why are we doing this?
“We don’t know,” Murch concedes. “But it’s this very deep human need to find out and discover these things. I’ve always been interested in this and it really hit home at the end that there were these cave paintings 40,000 years ago and in some mysterious way these things are related: the ability to symbolize aspects of the world in image or language or mathematics is the quintessential human thing. If you were to define us, we’re not so much the tool-making animal as we are the symbol-making animal. And we create symbols and then we manipulate them to make them dance. I see it as the broad spectrum of human activity from art at one end and science at the other. They’re very different but linked.”
And the story will continue as the Collider gets retooled and made stronger for the next phase in two years, pitting the “super-symmetry” of order against the randomness of “multi-verse.” So far the Higgs has not provided a definitive answer, which makes for great storytelling, if not definitive science.
Meanwhile, Murch has gone from science fact to science-fiction with Brad Bird’s highly anticipated “Tomorrowland” (May 22, 2015), which pits idealistic scientist George Clooney against greedy rival Hugh Laurie (think Tesla vs. Edison). It’s reportedly about genius, invention, time travel, creative thinking, and technical accomplishment: “an enigmatic place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory as Tomorrowland.”
“This has all kinds of things that are not part of the scientific world view, but fascinating,” Murch suggests. “I’ve known him since the early ’80s. He was developing an animated film based on Will Eisner’s ‘The Spirit’ when I was developing ‘Return to Oz.’ We were both under the umbrella of Gary Kurtz. But this is the first time we’ve worked together.”
After playing with physics in “Particle Fever,” now Murch finally gets to dabble with string theory, among other things, in “Tomorrowland.”