A Brief History of Time
Directed by Errol Morris. Starring Stephen Hawking. (1991)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 30, 1992
Given what we knew in advance about this acclaimed documentary, its subject Stephen Hawking and its filmmaker Errol Morris, the expectations coming in were nothing less than messianic. In short, this is not the second coming. It is, however, properly billed as a “brief history.” The film is an 80-minute rendition of the international best-seller of the same name. Hawking's scientific book about cosmology has amazingly sold over five million copies. His musings about the universe, black holes, time, fate, theology and theoretical physics which have seized the imagination of both the scientific and lay communities, are all the more startling given their difficulty of expression. As a university student, Hawking became ill with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) which quickly wasted his muscles and left him unable to move or speak, confining his body to a wheelchair and his communication to a revolutionary computer apparatus. Largely a straightforward bio-pic, A Brief History shows us the young Hawking as an undisciplined boy genius only able to harness his tremendous gifts under the threat of total muscle loss that would leave only his brain, heart and lungs functioning and the exigencies of marriage that impelled him to support his wife and family. The pairing of this maverick of science with this iconoclast of filmmaking seemed like an ordained match. (Morris' last film, The Thin Blue Line is credited with freeing an innocent man from death row and an earlier documentary, Gates of Heaven, was a cheekily irreverent look at the little-examined subject of pet cemeteries.) Armed with a properly cosmological soundtrack by Philip Glass and top prizes from the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, it was hoped that A Brief History of Time would break new ground in the areas of documentary filmmaking and the popularization of science. Disappointingly, the movie is a pretty uninspired biography that sticks primarily to the story of one man's triumph over extremely daunting physical circumstances... a kind of My Left Brain for the theoretical science set. Sure, there are images of free-floating clocks and chickens and eggs dangling in space (all the better to showcase temporal issues like which came first, the chicken or the egg). Also, the explanations offered by the movie of things like black holes and other ontological propositions do little to clarify the murky and mysterious cosmos for the layman (and, I'm told, are highly debatable amongst “authorized” scientists). This biography, to our surprise, is extremely respectful and earnest and lacking Morris' usual transformational touch.