A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time (1991): United States/United Kingdom/Japan – directed by Errol Morris

Rated G by the MPAA – contains some highly scientific discussions, and potential nerdiness

A Brief History of Time is another outstanding documentary from the most revered of modern documentarians, Errol Morris.  After breaking onto the film scene in 1975 with Gates of Heaven, an amazing look into the lives of people obsessed with burying their pets in style (the movie is perhaps better known for causing Werner Herzog to eat his shoe after losing a bet that Morris would never finish the film), Morris continued to pursue offbeat or difficult subjects.  His best-known film is perhaps The Thin Blue Line, a look into a difficult murder case.  Along the way he also compiled such quirky material as Vernon, Florida [review here], a simple tale of folks in a small Florida town.

A Brief History of Time is yet another weird subject for the master of documentaries.  Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book by the same name provides a backbone for the film, filled in with a look at Hawking’s own life.  It turns out that Stephen was the only normal one in the family, growing up in a home full of super-intellectual academics.  In interviews with his sister and mother it becomes clear that Stephen, though abnormally intelligent, was quite interested in pursuing a normal school-boy life.

In college he never really applied himself; he was smart enough that a modicum of work was enough to pass.  It was only when he was 21, in 1963, that he was diagnosed with a rare disorder.  The disease, a type of muscular dystrophy (similar to, if not the same as, ALS), caused at first a limitation in movement.  It would eventually go on to paralyze nearly his entire body, leaving only his brain untouched.  It was this event, and the monumental consequences of the disorder, that would lead to Hawking finally applying himself to his science.

His science just happened to be theoretical physics, and his mind eventually took him to the outer limits of the known universe.  He popularized the idea of the black hole, and his book put the science into the vernacular of laymen.  As he ponders the infinite, interviews with a variety of his colleagues are included to provide backing.  Not all of them agree with Hawking’s theories, and indeed Hawking professes to keeping his mind open to a variety of new thoughts (including the probability that aliens do exist, and humans should not contact them).  Some of these interviews border on the unbelievable, as scientists describe how a person would feel as they slowly, inexorably get pulled into a black hole.

The documentary switches between intimate looks as Hawking’s home life and his scientific progress.  There are anecdotes about his early life with his wife, Jane, at a time when his body had not yet totally failed.  Every night he would pull himself to bed, up each stair on his own.  This effort kept his mind focused, it appears.  And Morris knows how to simply and effectively convey the effort required of him.  He cuts from the interview to two shots of the stairs.  The shots hold and hold before cutting back to the interview.

Similarly, the entire film is simply and effectively constructed.  Most of the interviews appear to be single camera setups, with blatant dips to black between cuts.  There is nothing flashy or stylish about how it is put together; instead, Morris depends on his subjects and his keen eye for juxtaposition to keep the viewers’ interest.  While the subject might seem unbelievably boring for some, it will certainly captivate certain audiences with the willingness to keep their minds open and active as they watch the film.

Hawking ponders a number of large questions throughout the film.  His ideas about the universe and quantum physics lead him in certain directions.  Many of these ideas bleed into more conventional arenas of thought, such as religion and the existence of God.  At one point in the film Hawking states that nothing he has conjectured precludes the existence of God, but only places limits on when He may have created it.  But like Hawking in real life, Morris is apt to change his mind.  Part of the genius of his films is that he never tells the full story up front.  Bits and pieces are relayed by the interviews, but not until the film is over does it become clear what they actually believe.

A Brief History of Time, like the book, may not appeal to all audiences.  Fans of documentaries, however, even if they are not scientifically or theoretically minded, would do well to seek out the film.  Morris’s skill at telling a compelling non-fiction story is evident, and it is always a blessing to watch him make the oblique interesting and necessary.

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