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Brief History of Time, A
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by Jack Sommersby

"A Rare Errol Morris Misfire"
2 stars

Neither challenges the mind nor engages our senses.

The documentary A Brief History of Time is director Errol Morris’s follow-up to his extraordinary, groundbreaking The Thin Blue Line, so it’s my displeasure to report that, despite one or two things, it isn’t very good. You have to give Morris some credit, though, for his willingness to take on as diametrically opposite a subject matter than he did the last time around (then again, this is the very same artist whose 1978 Gates of Heaven centered around pet cemeteries): there, it was Texas death-row inmate Randall Adams who, as Morris (a former private detective) persuasively argued, was wrongfully convicted for the slaying of a Dallas police officer, with the likely culprit a sixteen-year-old boy who had given Adams, whose car had run out of gas, a ride back to his motel after the two had gone to a drive-in movie and smoked pot; here, it’s the famous astrophysics cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the director of research at the University of Cambridge who’s confined to a motorized wheelchair due to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), and whose same-title book the movie is based on. Hawking has long been obsessed with black holes and the creation of the universe, and one would think Morris has been wise enough not to burden the viewer with complex mathematics that only the most intellectually brilliant could possibly comprehend. On the other hand, with Hawking’s questions like “Why do we remember the past but not the future?” we need more than just scratching-the-surface speak about space folding and slow-motion shots of a coffee mug breaking on the floor and then reassembling itself. How could humans possibly remember a future that hasn’t happened yet, is our immediate question, and though we pay close attention to Hawking’s reasoning we’re still nonplussed, as we also are when Hawking theorizes the universe is infinite, which, perhaps excepting the Flat Earth society, isn’t exactly something most people could argue with, or in fact care about, especially agnostics whose motto is “there’s no way to know the unknowable.” Despite a couple of loose ends, The Thin Blue Line was a thrilling experience. Morris, employing a voluptuous visual schema (aided by the talented cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, who gives the celebrated John Bailey here an assist), took what could’ve been just another documentary and gave it not just style but verve, two things the majority of entries in this genre lack. So I was looking forward to seeing how Morris was going to tackle an impenetrable-to-the-general-public subject and make it lucidly accessible, or at the very least stylistically stimulating, but he fumbles the ball. We’re discouraged from the very get-go when we’re shown outer space overlaid with Hawking asking, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” and Morris serves up a brief shot of a live chicken turning its head at the bottom of the screen. Compare this with the opening of The Thin Blue Line with composer Phillip Glass’s ominous score overlaying nighttime shots of downtown Dallas with Adams sullenly remarking, “If there were ever a Hell, it would be Dallas County” and you can see Morris isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders here. Randall Adams was an everyman subject, and Morris instinctively knew he needed to give the proceedings visual sophistication and atmosphere to lift the movie above what most documentarians would treat in a rote kind of way; with Stephen Hawking, the very opposite of an everyman, who can only “speak” through a computerized synthesizer and whose virtually-immobilized self (he has use of only one hand, with a single finger clicking on a computer mouse to do his work) is imprisoned in his chair as Adams was behind bars, Morris has incorrectly surmised that he needn’t give his subject much in the way of tactile treatment.

Despite his unparalleled brilliance, I'm sorry to say Hawking simply isn’t a particularly compelling figure. Maybe if we were drawn to him we could feel an emotional connection the way we did with, say, Daniel Day-Lewis’s cerebral-palsy poet in My Left Foot and Richard Dreyfuss’s paraplegic sculptor in Whose Life Is It Anyway? Those characters had great minds, and also a great deal of human dimension; with Hawking, he talks about nothing but his work, and though Morris provides interviews with Hawking’s mother and sister and a couple of his scientific colleagues, they don’t really reveal anything or add anything substantial to the mix – they’re just window dressing, whereas in The Thin Blue Line there were cops and lawyers and judges as well as the probable killer, the white-trash sociopath David Harris who provided a disturbing dramatic arc in contrasting Adams’s decency with his innate evil. Strictly speaking, the book A Brief History of Time gains nothing from being brought to the screen. You could feel Morris’s fascination with Randall Adams, but you can’t get a sense of correlation between Morris and Stephen Hawking because all that’s offered up are scientific theories that fail at sparking our imaginations. So what if the universe is limitless when in this day and age so much of the universe as we know it is largely unexplored due to technological limitations? Where did the universe come from? If it hasn’t always been here, what came before it? If the egg (future) came before the chicken (present, or is it the past?), how exactly is this so? Give us an example. The movie is a mere eighty-four-minutes long, but after the forty-five-minute mark I was squirming in my seat at the mechanicalness of what Hawking was saying and the repetitiveness of Morris’s presentation of it. (Certainly not helping is Phillip Glass’s droning, monotonous score, which seems to have even fewer bars than John Carpenter’s limited Halloween score.) After the huge success of The Thin Blue Line, did Morris, having scored a major critical success (it appeared on many top-ten lists as well as earning prizes from numerous critics groups), take on this project as some kind of challenge, thinking it’d be quite the feat to pull off? If this was the case, the cold, clinical approach he employs was exactly the wrong one because the movie doesn’t jumpstart intellectual imagination the way George Miller’s Lorenzo’s Oil did. Director Miller was a trained physician, so he knew how challenging the material was involving the parents of a young child afflicted with the rare nerve disease ALS trying to find a cure for this fatal disease; he had the non-scientific parents (one an economist, the other a linguist) immersing themselves in the subject and using objects such as building blocks and large paperclips and charts to keep the audience in the game, and we were held spellbound by both their plight and the scientific details. But Morris gives short thrift both to Hawking himself and the science, so we have nothing to fall back on and have to endure grainy, non-letterboxed clips of the outstanding widescreen-shot Disney production The Black Hole. I think it’s evident by now, based not just on The Thin Blue Line and Gates of Heaven but also he 1981 Vernon, Florida (which detailed true eccentrics in a small rural town), that Morris needs a subject that “speaks” to him, that he can free-associate with in creating a vision that’s all his own. Watching A Brief History of Time is like being in an aesthetic vacuum for nearly an hour and a half because it simply doesn’t “breathe” – it’s affectless and flat, with nothing genuinely alive to jog your senses. It’s the ultimate in filmgoing enervation.

For those who haven't seen Morris's other movies, I highly encourage you to do so.

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originally posted: 11/14/18 08:19:03
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  01-Sep-1991 (PG)



Directed by
  Errol Morris

Written by
  Stephen Hawking

  Stephen Hawking
  Isobel Hawking
  Janet Humphrey
  Mary Hawking
  Basil King

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