Even nearly 70 years after his death, Albert Einstein is still likely to be one of the top answers (along with, presumably, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy) if the average person is asked to name a famous scientist. But there have been decades of further advancement on Einstein’s theories by dozens of unsung researchers, theorists and experimentalists, and the documentary Chasing Einstein highlights one particular area of inquiry into Einstein’s work, the search for the existence of so-called dark matter. The movie’s subject is a bit esoteric, then, and co-directors Steve Brown and Timothy Wheeler assume some basic knowledge on the part of their audience, but they also take care to explain the steps that their subjects are taking, and how important those steps are to learning about the fundamental nature of the universe.
The movie begins with the documentation of gravitational waves, confirming one of Einstein’s central theories, and that development spurs on the efforts to document dark matter, a theoretical phenomenon that forms a key underpinning of Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s a complex concept involving detailed calculations and very large pieces of equipment, and the film conveys it in fairly broad terms, focusing more on the personalities of the scientists and the historical significance of their work rather than on specific mathematical formulas. Luckily, the movie is full of engaging subjects who are passionate about what they do, and the filmmakers allow those individuals to shine through, occasionally to the movie’s detriment.
In addition to some impressively credentialed scientists, Chasing Einstein devotes substantial focus to Silicon Valley investor Cree Edwards, whose main qualification seems to be that he has a lot of money and a lot of time on his hands. Edwards may be a dilettante of sorts, but he highlights an interesting schism in the scientific community, the conflict between the mainstream view that dark matter must exist (even if there has yet to be any documented evidence for it) and a competing theory that there is an alternate explanation for dark matter’s alleged effects. The movie doesn’t take a specific position, instead letting various scientists make their cases, and in true scientific fashion, advocates on both sides allow for the possibility that their theories will turn out to be wrong.
At its best, Chasing Einstein exhibits a kind of Herzogian curiosity about the wonders of the world and the strange, obsessive people who pursue them, even though it’s less idiosyncratic than a Werner Herzog movie. Like Herzog, though, Brown and Wheeler find unique people to anchor their story, including twin physics professors Erik and Herman Verlinde and stylish Italian physicist Elena Aprile, countering the potentially dry subject matter. There are digressions here that don’t pan out, especially a trip into the wilderness by various subjects to observe a solar eclipse, but they’re all in service of establishing a narrative that goes beyond equations and diagrams.
Chasing Einstein would make a good companion for a few of Herzog’s science documentaries (including Encounters at the End of the World, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World and Into the Inferno), as well as for Mark Levinson’s 2013 documentary Particle Fever, which focused on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, a key component of Chasing Einstein. Chasing Einstein is a little more blandly educational than those films, perhaps better suited for a classroom than a film festival, but it follows in a long tradition of documentaries that attempt to make sense of the insular world of scientific research, using common questions about the meaning of existence—and a handful of colorful characters—to draw the attention of a general audience.