Wanna go from feeling really smart, to super dumb, to kind of smart for keeping up, to the kind of dumb that makes you wonder how you’ve made it this far? Awesome news, you can have all that and more in just 80 minutes with A Brief History of Time. The opening credits claim it’s a documentary based on the book for the same name by science hero and karaoke zero, Stephen Hawking. But because this is a film by Errol Morris, it’s much more than that.
Morris doesn’t just find the most captivating stories, he always finds a surprising way to tell it. And no matter how big or small his flourishes might be, they always work to enhance the story and never overshadow it. With A Brief History of Time, Morris technically adapts Hawking’s book, but he also parallels the theories of the book with the story of Hawking’s life. So while we’re learning about his revolutionary ideas regarding the expansion of space, the theoretical “Big Crunch” that will end everything when the expansion reverses and what would happen to you if you travelled through a black hole, we’re also getting the just as fascinating story about the boy who lazily cruised through school and college, before being diagnosed with motor neuron disease motivated him to pull his finger out and put his bog ol’ brain to use.
It’s a great mix of hard science and almost biopic, with each side of the story always complimenting the other. The science is just hard enough to make you feel like you’re dealing with and learning some really heavy, important stuff, without ever being too overwhelming. OK, I found it kind of overwhelming and plenty went over my head, but never enough to make me zone out or lose track of the science and how the discoveries worked with the stories of Hawking’s own life as they occurred.
Morris also manages to tell Hawking’s story without it ever sounding like self help, manufactured, inspirational schmaltz. When Hawking says getting engaged to his girlfriend gave him a reason to live after his motor neuron disease diagnosis, it doesn’t sound nearly as contrived as you’d expect. Maybe that’s an advantage of much of the movie being narrated by Hawking via his computerised voice box. The cold, robotic voice means there’s no sickening sentiment to make things extra sappy.
I don’t think I’m any smarter for having seen A Brief History of Time, but I do feel like I know more about someone who it’s worth knowing more about, and about his contributions to the world. I also learned that posh English kids who go to posh English universities grow up to be posh, posh English men.