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‘A Brief History of Time’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 25, 1992


Errol Morris
Not rated

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You could never accuse documentary filmmaker Errol Morris of thinking small. Bored by earthly questions of the sort he explored in "The Thin Blue Line," Morris has tilted his telescope skyward to such heavenly topics as the origin of the universe, black holes, the end of time and, ultimately, the mind of God.

So why do I feel I'm watching a movie that in style and viewpoint is pretty much the same as the last one Morris made?

In "A Brief History of Time" Morris seems to have tailored a knockoff of his work instead of an original. Philip Glass contributes his usual roundelay (does anyone else find this stuff monotonous?) and Morris his bag of patented Daliesque visual tricks, but this time the contrast between Morris's high-church art house style and the grubby, bus station milieu that created such brilliant tension in "Thin Blue Line" is missing. His subject is as highfalutin as his style, and so all the director contributes is a ready-made item that hangs nicely on his model but doesn't do much for her.

It helps tremendously, then, that his model is ravishing on her own. Or, rather, on his own. Morris's guide through this cosmos of big questions is the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who though shrunken and nearly immobilized by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig's disease), has expanded the findings of Albert Einstein to the point that he believes he may have made contact with God or at the very least His mathematical equivalent.

With Hawking on the podium, we are given a quick remedial course in general cosmology, gaining the basic vocabulary to understand what this magnificent intellect has to tell us about where the universe came from. And guess what? It makes sense. (Apparently we're getting a simplified version of Hawking's broader points; in its complete form only about five people in the world have a clue as to what he's talking about.)

It's a good thing it does, because that's all we get. The most fascinating aspect of the film isn't so much Hawking's theories as Hawking himself. That these far-reaching calculations would spring forth from a body so ravaged that he is able to speak only through a computerized synthesizer is so powerfully and sadly ironic that it seems like one of God's grimmer jokes. Yet Morris doesn't deal much with the personal details of his subject's thoughts. Actually, Morris makes a point not to psychoanalyze Hawking, implying, perhaps, that it would be impossible to actually know what it's like to be Stephen Hawking. Not to dig into this area may have made it easier on Hawking, who no doubt prefers not to be made an object of study, but Hawking is our object of study, and we feel cheated that at least some attempt wasn't made to make him come alive for us as a man as well as a brain.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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