The story and science of renowned astro-physicist Stephen Hawking was given the Errol Morris cinematic treatment in A Brief History of Time in 1991. Morris’ ability to probe deep into unique idiosyncratic characters is put to the ultimate test in Hawking, the wheelchair bound genius with no way of communicating other than his hand controlled clicker and computer-translated voice. And yet through his inert facade emerges perhaps the most enlightening character study he’s ever made.
A Brief History of Time (1991) dir. Errol Morris
By Alan Bacchus
Morris also impressively manages to make the didactic science of quantum physics, black hole theory and other theoretic principals of Hawking’s routinely understandable. But this was the modus operandi of Hawking’s book which even I read and understood at age 12. Morris gives us a two-pronged approach, including the life story of Hawking who begins his life in full health, his family life of eccentric and intelligent parents in England, his education at Oxford and Cambridge and his career accolades and accomplishments thereafter. Not to mention the gradual debilitation of the ALS disease which would see him bound to a wheelchair for life and unable to communicate other than through his now famous clicker-to-voice computer system.
As Morris conventionally moves through the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80's charting Hawking’s life, Hawking himself narrates the key theorems of science he has studied and pioneered. Hawking’s theories make us examine our own place in the universe and posit existential theories which both boggle our minds and profoundly expand them. Strangely the unusual cadence of the computer seems to put us at ease and simplify the science for us.
This is just one of the fascinating ironies of the film. For Morris, the most powerful irony is the effect of Hawking’s disease. We come to realize that the world of science has benefited from Hawkings’ ill health. His mother appropriately uses the Samuel Johnson quotation, ‘The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully’, which explains the effect of ALS, which has taken the physical body functions away from him, but left his mind intact, and thus the only option for Hawking but to focus his will fully on science. This is the stuff of comic book origin stories!
Morris also has the droll British upper class sense of humour fully in place. Hawking proudly proclaims he’s able to drift in and out of people's conversations without the appearance of daydreaming. And for Hawking, daydreaming means focusing on big bang theory and the origins of the universe.
Morris’ production philosophy matches Hawking’s own rigorous brain power. Morris once again places his subject in an impeccably designed set, but this time, studio recreated versions of the rooms in Hawking’s own house. Thus, with full control of the lighting and sound in the space Morris can fully manipulate the physics of his own space. Morris’ carefully chosen visuals are shot with pristine care, rich visual offerings which have always elevated his films into the sphere pure auteur cinema.
And Philip Glass’s music cues, which are profound works of art in their own right, once again hypnotically draw us into the subject matter.
A Brief History of Time is available on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection