Director Errol Morris has taken a daunting subject--one man's lifelong obsession with the creation of the universe--and fashioned a uniquely thought-provoking entertainment highlighted by an unexpected dose of wit. While not as riveting as some of his earlier work, Morris's A BRIEF
HISTORY OF TIME is nonetheless an outstanding documentary.
The film's magnificent opening shot, a stellar landscape, is something you'd expect to see in a planetarium, not a movie theater. It's followed by the eerily disembodied voice of the film's subject, Stephen Hawking, who is arguably the world's foremost astronomer. "What came first, the chicken or
the egg?" queries Hawking. A chicken's head promptly pops into view, setting the atmosphere for the next ninety minutes--education through wry humor. Preferring to call himself a cosmologist, Hawking has, over the past three decades, taken the field and turned it upside down and inside out.
Indeed, having rebutted Einstein's theory of general relativity well in advance of his scientific peers, Hawking has become a legend in his own time.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME follows Stephen from his birth in England in 1942. Fascinated with the stars since childhood, he was accepted to Oxford on early admissions. Never really applying himself (because he didn't need to), he spent more time sipping beer with his college chums than hitting the
books. Lazy by nature and all too easily bored with his studies, he always found plenty of time to play coxswain on the university rowing team. A fellow student recalls how Hawking finished ten questions on a mathematics exam in little over an hour, while his contemporaries managed to conquer only
one and a half answers during a four-hour period. Still, Hawking himself admits that he was unfocused and not sure what to do with his gift. After completing his studies at Oxford in 1962, he went on to Cambridge for his Ph.d. This is where destiny finally caught up with him.
While at Cambridge, Hawking began to have trouble with his balance and often dropped things. Tests revealed that he was suffering from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Doctors also confirmed that he would progressively lose all motor functions and that only his heart, brain and lungs
would remain unaffected. Worse still, they gave him only two or three years to live. After understandably succumbing to depression, Stephen soon met his future wife Jane, who gave him new hope to go on. He became determined to defeat ALS and for the first time in his life he became focused on his
future and his work.
In the 1960s Hawking began to make significant scientific advances, becoming well known for his theories about black holes and the "Big Bang." Convinced--due to his disbelief in quantum mechanics--that Einstein's assumptions were incorrect, Hawking instead envisioned an ever-expanding universe
that possibly had no beginning at all. Delving deeper into the nature of black holes, Hawking deduced that time and space were interchangeable. He also developed an explanation for the presence of what looked like radiation near the horizon of a black hole--anything sucked into the vortex was
expelled in the form of radiation-like light. Though some of his findings were later revised by others (and many by himself), Hawking single-handedly answered questions which had puzzled the scientific mind for centuries. (Although not religious himself, Hawking made it clear that his theories did
not necessarily exclude the presence of God, a declaration which softened an initial hostility on the part of the Church.)
By the 1980s Hawking had lost all use of his hands and was confined to a wheelchair. When his vocal chords failed him, a system was devised by which small finger movements could provoke his computer to punch up words on the screen. These words were then filtered through a speech synthesizer,
enabling Hawking to "talk" again. Today, at his home in England, Hawking continues to unravel the mysteries of the universe, which he's now convinced will eventually collapse into nothingness.
The fact that Stephen Hawking's life is nearly as fascinating as his discoveries is what doubtless compelled Morris to document them both. Done in true documentary style, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is dominated by talking heads, graphs and charts and just the right amount of scientific data to keep
an audience interested without going over its head. The director keeps to his earlier format by never asking questions on camera, preferring to let various relatives (notably quirky themselves), scientists and friends piece together Hawking's compelling history. And while his extraordinary
intellect is everywhere apparent, Hawking's self-effacing wit and charm make this a very accessible story for the general public. When he mentions that the world will destroy itself in two hundred billion years he wryly notes, "It doesn't bother me, because I don't expect to be around to see it."
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is informative but accessible. When the numbers get too difficult for the layman to follow, Morris has a formidable solution--graphics that come alive on the screen. For instance, in one monologue, Hawking begins describing what happens to time and space at the entrance to
a black hole--pretty deep stuff. By floating a giant Rolex watch into the picture as his prop, and showing the effects of time on the watch's face, the situation becomes utterly clear. He does this again later with a broken cup and saucer which put themselves back together again. The only real
flaw in the film is that the findings of so many previous astronomers are alluded to so briefly--a better sense of the prevailing theories would have helped here.
Throughout, the one constant is the clicking of Hawking's computer keyboard as he searches for the next word to put into a sentence. Immobile in his wheelchair, yet with his mind racing through another dimension, this stationary protagonist is fascinating to watch and impossible not to admire.
Ultimately, A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME is as much about one person's triumph over adversity as it is about the mysteries of astronomy.
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