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Since the earliest days, Man has looked up at the stars and wondered just what was out there. Were the myths true, and were the stars created by the gods, or by God? How do stars work? Will our Universe ever come to an end? Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did God create the Universe, and does he play dice with it?
These are the questions asked by Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds in the scientific community, in Errol Morris' fascinating-but-unsatisfying documentary A Brief History of Time, with a title taken from Hawking's own best-selling book on black holes and the beginnings of the Universe.
Hawking's mind has traveled to the farthest reaches of time, but in contrast his body cannot go beyond his wheelchair. He suffers from ALS, a disease that is slowly robbing him of the ability to move his muscles; over the years he has lost the ability to walk, to lift himself up, and even to speak. In 1985 he suffered from a bout with pneumonia, and as a result he had to have a tracheotomy in which he lost his voice completely. Hawking now communicates with the world through an electronic voice from a computer terminal attached to his wheelchair. Oddly enough, the computer's mechanical (but not emotionless) voice suits him better than any human voice ever did, and it's the perfect vehicle to deliver his dry, British wit. The movie is quite funny, and we're engrossed from its first moment, when we see a vision of infinities of stars, and we hear Hawking's keypad clicking away and forming sentences for us.
Morris wisely avoids the standard "hero triumphing over tremendous odds" approach of documentary filmmaking. Hawking suffers from a disease that would make it easy to pity him, and yet he still became one of the greatest names in the scientific world. Instead of the usual "battle for his life" that we would expect, however, Morris prefers to cast Hawking as an individual who willingly accepted the hand dealt him by Fate. He lost the ability to walk, to talk, to move by himself, but he didn't mind; he just accepted it and continued from there. He's simply a man in a wheelchair, writing books and papers with the aid of a computer. If he has any bitterness about his condition, he doesn't show it here.
This is why we don't even see a complete shot of Hawking until nearly half an hour into the movie; when the movie begins, we first hear the sound of his clicking keypad. We are then treated to a close-up of his eyes, concentrating on his computer screen, and several shots of his face appearing amidst flashes of his early life, when he could walk. Nearly all of the present-day scenes with Hawking consist solely of his face, his eyes, or his hand at the keypad - these are his most important parts, and to dwell on the wheelchair would be a way of pitying a man who has no need to be pitied. In fact, as his mother notes, it was the disease that contributed to Hawking's decision to concentrate on theoretical physics. While growing up and attending college, he seemed to be a bored genius - he could easily solve problems, but he had no interest in doing anything worthwhile. The disease (and his engagement to his wife, now separated) made him face the reality of death for the first time, and he resolved to bring direction and meaning to his life after that. He then began his now-famous research into the structure of black holes, entropy, quantum physics, and other areas of science that we can barely conceive.
In addition to presenting Hawking's vast intellect for us, we also see that he is a very religious man. The question of God is always present here, and Hawking is very concerned with the fact that if Mankind learns how the Universe was created, we might learn that God does not exist. This question permeates Hawking's book, and it's here in the movie as well, as Hawking tells us how the Church persecuted the great minds of the past, like Galileo, and how he was nervous when he was granted an audience with the Pope. Few other movies have the courage to tackle such cosmic ideas, and A Brief History of Time deserves credit for doing so without overwhelming us.
As a presentation of Hawking's life, the movie is entertaining and informative. In fact, the wealth of detail that Morris gives us makes us hungry for the knowledge that Hawking has accumulated through the years. It makes us want to go out and learn about black holes and the Universe. This brings me to the movie's one fault: While the movie paints an engrossing picture of a man whose mind has traveled into realms of the Universe where no man has gone before (to coin a phrase), it only gives us the briefest of synopses when outlining Hawking's theories for us.
What it does describe for us is intriguing and interesting. As Hawking's computer-generated voice tells us that time might flow backwards when the Universe eventually collapses in upon itself, we see a teacup crashing down upon a linoleum floor - and then the teacup reverses itself, comes back together, and rises again to the top of the screen where it came from. It's a striking image, and it perfectly completements Hawking's description of the reversibility of time. There are several other related images throughout the movie, as Hawking summarizes the Big Bang for us, along with the reasons why particles can escape a black hole, and why time slows down as we approach one. But it's not enough; these lessons in quantum physics only serve to whet our appetites, and the movie leaves us hungry for more.
The book A Brief History of Time is a fascinating piece, and its major advantage is Hawking's gift for writing about complex subjects in clear, concise, easy-to-understand grammar. Perhaps it's a natural development of his illness; since it takes him so long to phrase his statements, he must choose his words carefully and presents them in a fashion that gets the point across with the greatest impact as quickly as possible.
I couldn't put the book down when I began reading it, even though some of the subjects presented in it made my head swim. It's a simplification, meant to explain the complex cosmologies of the Universe for us in plain and simple terms. At this it succeeds admirably, and I would have loved to see even more of the book presented in the movie. Perhaps Morris was afraid that long segments of techno-speak would turn off audiences and put them to sleep. When I saw the film, however, I heard people wishing that there was more of the book in there. What we see is merely the tip of the iceberg, and even though a ninety-minute documentary can only give us the simplest of lessons in science, I believe that Morris should have delved into Hawking's theories with more detail.
A Brief History of Time is certainly a triumph for Errol Morris. He could have turned Hawking's book into a cold, dry essay on the structure of the Universe, but by making it into the story of the life of a great man, he gives his movie a humanity and a warmth rarely seen in character portraits of this type. But he does so at the expense of the scientific data, making much of the film a case of style-over-substance. You will certainly be entertained, informed, entranced, and fascinated when you see this movie. It's a terrific piece of work, and in an age where 90 minutes can seem like an eternity at some movies, here's one film that's not long enough. I've had a taste of A Brief History of Time, and I want more!
Like so many others, I bought this book when it was all over the New York Times best-seller list. What's more, I actually tried understanding it, even though the concepts it presented made my head swim. But the book did re-ignite my interest in science, something that had been effectively killed during my sentence in that hell known as high school. The problem with the education system today is that it's designed to get kids in and out as quickly as possible, while doing as little as possible to make subjects like math and science interesting for kids. Most people who go on into a career in the sciences were influenced by a certain teacher, someone who took pains to interest his or her students and make them realize science is more than just memorizing facts from poorly-written textbooks. I never had a teacher like that (until college, when I met Rick Dagwan), and while I'd had a passing interest in black holes (the subject fascinated me when I was younger), my interest wasn't sparked until I read Professor Hawking's book. There are far too few books on science that can truly be considered inspirational, and this is one of them. It inspired me to look more into true science, and for that I am thankful.