The cosmos according to Stephen Hawking


June 11, 1993|By Scott Hettrick


(Paramount, 1991)

"I wanted to try to reinvent the documentary genre," Errol Morris recently said. "The documentary for years has been seen as a kind of journalism but rarely as an art form."

Mixing dramatic re-enactments and talking-head interviews, Mr. Morris created such a visually convincing argument about the innocence of a man convicted of murder in his widely acclaimed 1988 film, "The Thin Blue Line," and many credited him with the subsequent release of the prisoner.

Unfortunately, Mr. Morris has also shouldered the blame for spawning a glut of similarly styled television programs. " 'The Thin Blue Line' has been endlessly copied in reality-based television," he said with some disgust.

It's not likely his latest approach will be so freely mimicked.

For one thing, the subject matter of "A Brief History of Time" is far less accessible. Actually, the film has two subjects: renowned physicist Stephen Hawking's theories of the origin of the universe, and Mr. Hawking himself. The latter is the far more compelling of the two.

It would be difficult to find a way to present Mr. Hawking's story that would not be compelling. The British-born scientist's affliction with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) has become so severe that he is restricted to only slight movement in one or two of his fingers. Mr. Hawking first began to notice that he was suffering from a physical disability while in college, and he began to deteriorate rapidly.

However, his most significant work has been accomplished since then, with the aid of a computer that responds to slight movements in his digits and which allows him to speak by translating his typed commands into a synthesized language.

"Meeting Hawking was what inspired me to make the movie," Mr. Morris said. "I was not only impressed with him but I liked him."

Mr. Morris' challenge, at Mr. Hawking's request, was to integrate Mr. Hawking's personal story into a presentation of Mr. Hawking's theories, making those theories more accessible, and more widely known, to people outside the scientific community.

"The two stories were closely paralleled," the filmmaker said. "Hawking was studying the collapsing stars that are cut off from the rest of the universe while he is being slowly cut off through his disease."

Mr. Hawking is shown in his wheelchair from various angles throughout the film, working on the computer as we hear his voice narration describing his life and his work. One can easily forget while watching these sequences how laborious it is for Mr. Hawking to communicate. Mr. Morris said the narration took hours upon hours, as Mr. Hawking meticulously typed in the dialogue and Mr. Morris recorded the computer voice.

The shots of Mr. Morris in his chair were filmed separately. "It's probably the first non-talking, talking-head shot," Mr. Morris joked.

One of Mr. Morris' variations on the standard documentary that takes some getting used to is the lack of on-screen identification of the subjects being interviewed about Mr. Hawking's life. We eventually figure out who is his mother and which ones are his sisters, but we can only surmise that others were college and professional peers. "It was more important to know their functions with Stephen than their names," Mr. Morris explained.

But what does come across is the basis for Mr. Hawking's subsequent studies. We learn about his early inquisitive nature, his determination, his skepticism about accepted religious and scientific philosophies and his immense intellect, which led to boredom with his studies.

We also learn that the realization of his own immortality as a result of the disease led him to focus his energy on projects that involved geometrical arguments that he could resolve pictorially in his head.

As for Mr. Hawking's theories, Mr. Morris uses a number of computer graphics, special effects and even film clips to add visual stimulation for the viewer. For instance, as Mr. Hawking describes what led to his most significant discovery -- that particles could escape from a black hole -- we see scenes from the silly Disney movie "The Black Hole."

A dialogue about the eventuality of time reversing itself as the universe begins to contract features a vivid close-up of a cup of coffee falling on a tile floor in slow motion forward and backward.

In other cases, Mr. Hawking's colleagues comment on his theories about the origin and eventual end of the universe, and Mr. Hawking himself at times provides amusing remarks about his own studies.

Even if Mr. Morris is not always successful in making the theories completely comprehensible to the layman, he has certainly come close enough to allow the viewer to ponder some pretty weighty topics. What's more, he has conveyed a sense of humanity and humor and even a kind of Everyman personality in Mr. Hawking that is not commonly associated with extreme intellectuals.

Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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