Director Errol Morris knows that theoretical physics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so in his film adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s unlikely 1988 best-seller, A Brief History of Time, he does things like illustrate the entropy of the universe with shots of a shattering teacup. He tries to make the physics go down easy with stylized visuals, perfectly distilled interviews, and a fascinating glimpse of the life that shaped the science. Yet for all Morris’ efforts to make the theories entertaining-the color-saturated images of a chicken and a roulette wheel, some sequences run backward and in slow motion- you don’t have to digest the science to like the movie.
British cosmologist Hawking, who has ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological affliction), speaks through a computerized voice synthesizer that he controls with a mouse, expounding on black holes and the Big Crunch. A Brief History makes much of the fact that Hawking has accomplished his groundbreaking work not so much despite his disability as because of it. His doctors’ prognosis-in 1963-that he had 21 2 years to live imbued the then-21-year-old Hawking with a sense of urgency, transforming a lazy student into an intellectual adventurer. As his body deteriorated, his life of the mind intensified and took new turns. One of his colleagues points out that when Hawking lost the ability to write down equations, he began choosing research projects that demanded he think pictorially-in the process developing a set of mental tools only he has mastered. Somewhat annoyingly, this colleague, as well as the other friends and family members interviewed, are not identified until the end credits, which are nearly impossible to make out on a small screen. In another respect, though, the release of A Brief History on video-which coincides with Hawking’s appearance on the season finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation-offers viewers the luxury of repeating more esoteric patches. Morris (who also directed the 1988 true-crime documentary The Thin Blue Line) has said that he strove to make a film Hawking would like, which explains why A Brief History reveals no black holes in its subject’s emotional universe. While Hawking credits his first wife, Jane, with inspiring him to achieve after he was first diagnosed, the movie never discloses that in 1990 he left her for his nurse. He speaks of his illness in direct declarative statements, always with the dispassionate voice synthesizer. Yet the deadpan techno-voice is oddly apt; it reinforces Morris’ efforts not to sentimentalize this guy. When Hawking recounts the time a speeding car hit him and his wheelchair, smashing his computer and necessitating 13 stitches in his head, the point of the story is that Hawking went back to his Cambridge University office a few days later. A singular character somehow emerges from all the hardware, and it’s bound to grab even those who don’t get as excited about the mysteries of the cosmos as Hawking clearly does. B+ -Susan Chumsky