Errol Morris turns his camera on one of the most fascinating men in the world: the pioneering astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, afflicted by a debilitating motor neuron disease that has left him without a voice or the use of his limbs. An adroitly crafted tale of personal adversity, professional triumph, and cosmological inquiry, Morris's documentary examines the way the collapse of Hawking's body has been accompanied by the untrammeled broadening of his imagination. Telling the man's incredible story through the voices of his colleagues and loved ones, while making dynamically accessible some of the theories in Hawking's best-selling book of the same name, A Brief History of Time is at once as small as a single life and as big as the ever-expanding universe.
As renowned physicist Stephen Hawking once described in A Brief History of Time, the ultimate goal of science is essentially a quest for establishing a single unifying theory of everything. It is an objective but also deeply personal journey for the best possible explanation of the entire universe. Every scientific discovery performed by individual, separate observations, predictions and hypotheses is one small piece and fraction to science's larger, eventual pursuit. They are partial answers to the most fundamental, innate question of how and why. To borrow Hawking's own words, a satisfying solution to that question "would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God."
It is fascinating then that some of the most astounding and insightful answers are to be found in black holes. It's ironic, in fact, that the most destructive thing in the whole universe, a place from which even light cannot escape, could possibly satisfy our deepest curiosity, that the point where time itself comes to an end should provide us with another step closer to achieving the goal of science. To some extent, this is the theme which informs Errol Morris's documentary, a visually stunning achievement that intertwines complicated abstract ideas with concrete, private sketches of a life well-lived. While enlightening viewers on cosmology and physics, the director of 'The Thin Blue Line' and 'The Fog of War' also inspires with small hints of how the science relates back to life and vice versa.
Taking the name from Hawking's best-known work, the documentary is more along the lines of a biography than an exploration of the physicist's best-selling book, one which attempted to describe complex discoveries in layman's terms for a general public. For Morris, the man who wrote the book serves as a more interesting subject than the science or a brief history of black holes, a study into the person who made one of the most astonishing revelations. An intriguing collection of interviews from the people in Hawking's life, from his mother, aunt and sister to various friends, colleagues and students, provide a glimpse into the history of a genius, someone driving from an early age with a passion for life and a desire to understand the universe better.
Cinematographer John Bailey ('Groundhog Day,' 'As Good As It Gets') provides impressive camerawork to the material, photographing each person in a shallow focus with grayish overtones and a mildly muted color palette. This gives the documentary a somber feel with a looming sense of expiration. Not necessarily a feel of impending death, but almost as with an awareness of eventuality, that everything comes to an end. The photography lends itself well to the discussion of black holes and space-time while also affording some weight to those sharing memories of Hawking's in his youth. The physicist explains his theories and discoveries while others talk about a joyful boy and intelligent student engrossed by cosmology, the heavens and the mathematics to explain it all.
Upon learning he suffered from a debilating motor neuron disease that is often fatal, a young Hawking didn't simply succumb to his fate but instead married and returned to his studies with eager enthusiasm. It was during this time he wrote extensively on and against the prevailing theories which garnered him public recognition and lead to writing a book that explained the creation of the universe in simple, layman's terms. With 'A Brief History of Time,' Morris reveals the man behind the genius, an inspiring and motivating figure that saw the destructive force of black holes full of possibilities and answers rather a moribund finality. Answers for some of our most central questions are an innate goal of all, but Hawking has brought us one step closer to understanding the mind of God.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Errol Morris's 'A Brief History of Time' comes to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #699). The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the distributor's standard clear keepcase with a DVD-9 copy sitting comfortably underneath. Also included is a 32-page booklet featuring an excellent essay entitled "Macrobiography" by author and film professor David Sterritt and an excerpt from Stephen Hawking's memoir My Brief History. There are no trailers before being greeted by the standard menu screen with static photo and music.
According to the accompanying booklet, this spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was created from the original 35mm camera negative and scanned in 4K resolution. Aside from old personal photos and a few badly-aged segments, the overall presentation is highly detailed with crisp, distinct lines in clothing and furniture. Facial complexions appear natural and quite revealing while colors are cleanly-rendered and bold, especially blues and greens. One of the more impressive aspects is the cinematography by John Bailey, who personally supervised the restoration process. Awash with a very fine and consistent layer of grain, the 1.85:1 image displays terrific three-dimensional depth and clarity. Contrast and brightness are spot-on with brilliant, clean whites and deep, penetrating blacks. In the end, this is a fantastic high-def transfer from Criterion.
Like the video, the audio was taken from the original 4-track magnetic strips, but unlike the video, the presentation is not quite as impressive. Don't get me wrong, the DTS-HD Master Audio is in great shape and enjoyable for what it is, but there's little in the overall design that engages the viewer. Granted, being a documentary, what ultimately matters is the quality of the vocals, and in that respect, the lossless mix does superbly, delivering every inflection and intonation in the voices of interviewees with crisp, detailed clarity. Although front imaging is well-balanced, there are only a few moments in the entire 89-minute runtime to fully appreciate it. The overall dynamic range is uniform and unfluctuating with a mostly silent, almost non-existent low end. Some sequences offer minor activity in the rears, but they are so light and barely audible to be negligible. Nevertheless, the high-rez track does the job well and adequately.
From documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, 'A Brief History of Time' is more of a biography on renowned physicist Stephen Hawking than a discussion on his best-selling book. It's a fascinating and stunning film that mixes personal anecdotes of his youth with brief discussions on the science, revealing the inspiring and motivated man behind the genius. The Blu-ray from Criterion arrives with an excellent audio and video presentation that fans will appreciate, but sadly, the bonus features are in short supply. Nevertheless, the overall package makes a wonderful addition to the collection.