A Brief History of Time: Macrobiography

On Film / Essays — Mar 17, 2014

Knotty questions can often be posed in simple ways. The first words we hear in A Brief History of Time, adapted by Errol Morris from the book by physicist Stephen Hawking, present such a question: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Additional questions follow, more imposing but equally to the point: “Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?” Those are funda­men­tal con­cerns of Hawking’s book, but don’t expect Morris’s film to be a thorny discourse on theoretical cosmology. As we hear those initial words, we see—what else?—a chicken, popping mischie­vously into view against a backdrop of the star-filled heavens. It’s a perfect prologue to one of the wittiest, most absorbing science movies ever made.

Even the title shared by book and movie offers food for thought. Does it make sense to say that time has a history? If the answer is yes, can the story be briefly told? Is the subject so abstruse that only a jargon-crowded tome could explain it? Or could it reach a wide array of readers and movie­goers, presented in clear, equation-free terms that general audiences can understand, appreciate, and enjoy?

The answer, of course, is yes to all of the above. Hawking’s book, a snappy two hundred pages of highly readable prose, was published in 1988, and by 2007 it had sold over ten million copies in dozens of languages, appearing on the best-seller list of London’s Sunday Times for an unprecedented 237 weeks. Enthusiasm also greeted Morris’s 1991 movie, which imaginatively translates intangible concepts of cutting-edge physics into cinematic images. Alternately haunting, evocative, and invigorating, the film weaves the science in Hawking’s book and the unique circumstances of Hawking’s life into a visually beguiling tour de force that’s both intimate in its humanity and cosmic in its scale. It richly deserved the Grand Jury Prize and Filmmakers Trophy it won at Sundance, and its achieve­ments are all the more impressive when you consider that the star of the picture is a paralyzed man who never moves and speaks through a computer-based voice synthesizer. He is, as Morris has put it, the first nontalking talking head in media history.

Hawking likes to point out that he was born exactly three hundred years after the death of Galileo, an astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and philosopher who pursued interests similar to Hawking’s in the era when modern science was born. Also like his illustrious predecessor, Hawking came from an educated family—in the film, a friend remembers everyone reading books at the dinner table—and showed early signs of strong intelligence. He was nicknamed Einstein Hawking in high school and went to Oxford at seventeen, breezing through his studies and consuming considerable quantities of alcohol along the way.

In graduate school, Hawking faced growing health problems, and in 1963, at age twenty-­one, he received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease) and a prognosis of two or three years to live—a wildly wrong prognosis, it turns out, since Hawking is alive and hugely influential to this day. While experts revere him for his trailblazing theories about black holes, multiple universes, and what’s now called Hawking radiation, the general public is more familiar with the sight of his famous wheelchair (license plate “Stephen” on the back) and the sound of his voice synthesizer. The wheelchair and synthesizer are key players in Morris’s movie, although Hawking himself gets less screen time than the friends, relatives, and colleagues who share revealing and sometimes very amusing anecdotes about the superstar of star scientists.

When he first got serious about physics, Hawking wasn’t sure whether he wanted to focus on galaxies, which are awesomely large, or on subatomic particles, which are awesomely small. His curiosity about the origins of the ­universe led him to decide on galaxies, but in modern research, the macro and the micro are inextricably intertwined, so he quickly became an expert on particle theory and quantum mechanics. Physicists of the 1960s knew about totally imploded stars, which came to be called black holes, and they knew that the universe is expanding in all directions at gradually decreasing speeds. But they disagreed on whether the universe had begun in an explosive big bang, which is now the standard theory, or had always existed in a steady state, with new matter coming into existence as old matter zoomed into the void. Hawking opted for the big bang and argued that the condition at the center of a black hole—a seemingly impossible “singularity” with infinite density and zero volume—was the condition of everything before the big bang started the expansion that’s been continuing ever since.

In the subsequent decades, Hawking has delved into a range of related problems with names like cosmological inflation, supergravity, and the big crunch, which is what would happen if the universe eventually stopped expanding and started contracting instead. Complicated stuff? Without a doubt. But his work as a popular-science writer, public intellectual, and media personality—with TV appearances ranging from documentaries to Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons—has clarified things wonderfully for those of us who aren’t in the theoretical-­physics trade.

The history of Morris’s film is as unusual as the man at its center. Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, owned the rights to Hawking’s book, and Spielberg mentioned it to Morris when they were in touch about a different project. Morris and the material seemed like a good match, since the filmmaker had briefly (if unsuccessfully) studied the history and philosophy of science as a graduate student at Princeton, where one of his teachers was John Wheeler, the theorist who made black hole a standard scientific term. Morris and Spielberg were something of an odd match, however, and Morris has said that there was more than one attempt to fire him after the film was under way. But he survived these and stayed the course, captivated by Hawking’s personality, which he found powerful and inspiring despite—or because of—the scientist’s disabilities.

Morris’s approach to the material was guided by numerous considerations, one of which was his sensible conviction that whatever else cinema may be able to do, conveying the intricacies of theoretical physics is not among its strong points. More important, he felt that Hawking’s book wasn’t so much a science lesson as a romance novel—or even a thinly veiled autobiography—in which the birth, expansion, contraction, and eventual death of the cosmos mirror the human condition, albeit on an unimaginably larger scale. Morris was fascinated by the idea that the world’s most ­prodigious theorist of black holes—stars that collapse in on themselves, becoming so dense that not even light can escape their gravitational pull—was a man whose body had collapsed in on itself, yet without quenching or even slowing the phenomenal intellect it contained. Hawking’s beautiful mind is at the heart of the film, which celebrates the spirit of a scientist who teases out the remotest secrets of the universe while sitting immobile in a wheelchair and depending on others to meet his needs.

All of Morris’s movies contain probing interviews with people who gaze into the camera and therefore into our eyes. He decided not to interview Hawking on film, since the time it takes to click words through a synthesizer makes normal give-and-take impossible. So while A Brief History of Time includes com­pel­ling conversations with the people in Hawking’s life, his own comments come in the form of voice-over, sometimes accompanied by portrait-style shots of the physicist. Nearly everything in the movie was photographed at the Elstree Studios in London, where Morris built an exact replica of Hawking’s office, complete with the Marilyn Monroe posters that decorated the walls. The interviews were likewise filmed on studio sets, the better to imbue this film about time with the timeless, ageless, otherworldly quality the director was after. What seems like sunlight coming through windows, for instance, actually comes from hidden lamps that Morris controlled as precisely as he did the colors and camera angles. He kept computer graphics to a minimum, partly because he wasn’t satisfied with the results achievable in the early 1990s and partly to ensure that a sense of genuine, deep-down humanity would shine through the scientific subject of the film. When graphs, vectors, or equations do make a rare appear­ance, their aesthetic value is at least as striking as the information they provide.

A Brief History of Time is a wellspring of information about Hawking, about physics, about contemporary science, and about the cosmos. It’s also a ­gallery of intriguing personalities, from Hawking’s mother and sister to such illustrious associates as Wheeler, the pioneering astrophysicist; Dennis Sciama, the Cambridge University pro­fessor who was Hawking’s doctoral adviser; and Roger Penrose, a crucial collaborator on some of Hawking’s most important research. Last but light-years away from least, A Brief History of Time is a magnificent work of cinema, weaving together its diverse elements with an ingenuity that reaffirms Morris’s stature as one of the greatest nonfiction filmmakers. Not all of them are ­sublime in themselves—as ­witness an amusingly naive excerpt from The Black Hole, a Disney sci-fi epic directed by Gary Nelson in 1979, which throws the luster of Morris’s artistry into high relief—but all contribute to the overall effect. And extra praise goes to the music by composer Philip Glass, who has contributed scores to several of Morris’s films, from The Thin Blue Line in 1988 to The Fog of War in 2003; none has a more fluid, haunting sensibility than the one for this fluid, haunting film.

Morris wanted A Brief History of Time to have a subtly surreal air; he called it “biography as dreamscape,” which captures both the mood of the film and the immensity of the issues with which it comes to grips. It closes with Hawking’s technologically inflected voice musing on modern science’s quest for a “theory of everything” that would account for all phenomena in the cosmos. “If we do discover a complete theory of the universe that should in time be understandable in broad prin­ciple by everyone, not just a few scientists,” Hawking reflects, in words slightly modified from his book, “then we shall all—philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people—be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God.” Few filmmakers explore such grand philo­sophical questions, and fewer still do so with Morris’s consummate cinematic skill. Hawking is the ideal partner for the enterprise. A Brief History of Time rivets the attention to the screen and ­propels the imagination to the stars.