The Chicken or the Egg: A Brief Look at the Enigmatic A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time, 1994
Directed by Errol Morris
Starring Stephen Hawking, Isabel Hawking, Janet Humphrey
IMBD Composite Score: 7.4

Rotten Tomatoes Composite Score: 93%
Run Time: 80 min.

Errol Morris is without a doubt one of the most important documentarians in the history of the genre. His early films Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981), both future entries at Man vs. Movies, exposed the odd and intriguing crevices of American society, while The Thin Blue Line (1988) straight-up freed a man from death row in Texas. So I was expecting his 1994 profile-cum-summation of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his titular groundbreaking 1988 pop-science book to be . . . well . . . better.

A Brief History of Time is by no means a miss. More like a solid fly ball that lands just shy of the foul pole. Large chunks of the movie are mesmerizing, especially when Morris turns to his idiosyncratic visualizations of Hawking's more advanced theories. But instead of focusing on these moments with the man himself, which were admittedly difficult to capture due to a truncated shooting schedule with Hawking (exacerbated by his reliance on a glacial means of communication), Morris parallels Hawking's theories with anecdotes from his life provided by an array of friends, family and colleagues.

These secondary interviews provide a tantalizing glimpse into the private life of one of history's greatest thinkers before his body was ravaged by the debilitating ALS disease, but it's clear that the people being interviewed are well aware of both how brilliant Hawking is and how important he is to society. As a result their interviews come off as unctuous and fawning, and with the exception of an anecdote about a wheelchair mishap (a story delivered by one of the most painfully awkward human beings I've ever seen on film) and a theoretical look at what death by black hole might look like, they're also kinda boring. 

But it's Hawking's theories that are the real draw here, and it's their audaciousness that saves the film from being simply a well-crafted puff-piece. Laying out complex theories about the creation of the universe and the relativity of time in a way that your average Joe Dumbfuck can understand is no easy task, but Hawking and Morris do so here brilliantly (for example, the steady slowing of a watch's second hand is used to demonstrate Hawking's explanation of time in relation to a black hole, making the complex theory much easier to wrap your head around).

All in all A Brief History of Time is worth your time. It's gorgeously composed, well-edited, and Hawking alone is worth the price of admission. I just wish Morris had devoted space to either Hawking's theories or his personal history. By doing neither, he ends up with a sorta-kinda intellectually stimulating slurry of both.

MVM Rating: 3 out of 5 Killer Black Holes
Fun Fact: Though appearing to be shot on location at various offices and homes, every single interview environment in the film is a painstakingly recreated set designed to give Morris full control over the lighting of his subjects. Somewhere Stanley Kubrick is applauding.