Errol Morris documents the life and theories of Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1992). Much of what makes this film eerie and compelling is seeing Hawking immobilized by ALS and hearing his voice synthesized by a computer explaining his theories on black holes.
Hawking generates enough bodily movement to use a clicker and, nearly miraculously, the metallic-but-intelligible voice-sounds reach and mesmerize us. It is as if only an ethereal, disembodied voice could explain the universe. More than his will to survive, his ability to continue to work and produce astounding ideas inspires and awes us. This is not a sentimental invalid-makes-good documentary. Something more problematic is happening.
Early in the film, to illustrate the vexing question, “When did the universe begin?” Morris superimposes a chicken onto a black and starry background. A true chicken-and-egg problem, this dilemma has been the hub of Hawking’s life’s work, although the equally vexing question about the fate of the universe concerns this physicist of Einsteinian stature.
He was the boy genius, if not family oddball in a family of oddballs, who amazed relatives, classmates, and professors with his abilities to solve the most difficult problems quickly. Hawking was never a great student grade-wise, but there was no chance of him not earning a degree. He admits that in early childhood he remained unmotivated and aimless, stuck in an intellectual and spiritual torpor, as if his genius affected him to the point of making life itself seem a letdown. The illusion of having it all figured out preempted any desire for accomplishment.
In an essay on Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett wrote,“death cures many of the desire for immortality.” In Hawking’s case, when he was diagnosed with ALS and given two years to live, this death sentence eased him away from a mortal complacency. The film strongly suggests that Hawking’s disease was the pathetic necessity for him to achieve greatness. This is the chicken-and-egg question from another direction. Moreover, Hawking has survived 49 years (29 in 1992) and counting, his life’s work the necessary reprieve from that death sentence.
In a way, reprieves and death sentences are Errol Morris’ specialty. His documentary The Thin Blue Line (1988) was responsible for getting a Texan off death row and out of jail. Gates of Heaven (1978) deals with a pet cemetery. Lastly, in Mr. Death: the Life and Times of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., we follow a man who has searched for the most humane way to execute criminals.
However, Hawking isn’t the only one to get a reprieve in Brief History of Time. His early breakthroughs centered on the nature of black holes: the more deeply a dead star is penetrated, time slows, and, theoretically, one could reach a point where time reverses itself—not that any living matter could survive the trip.
The time question intrigued Hawking, as did theories about the Big Bang and the expanding universe. He caused a tremendous stir when he published his theory on the expanding universe, applying the physics of black holes; basically, when the universe reached its limit, it will start to collapse on itself until it becomes the ultra-concentrated mass at the time of the Big Bang.
This theoretical leap from black holes to the universe, was, in so many words, Hawking’s death sentence on the universe.
However, the implications of this universe in reverse bothered him. Again, it was the time problem. Would the universe replay itself in some mischievous version of Nietzsche’s Eternal Return?
Finally, Hawking revised his theories, both on the events after the universe quit expanding and on the shape of the universe. The universe would continue, but not in a collapsing state, although it might gradually run down. Not a total reprieve, but a reprieve nevertheless.
Dealing with this so-called “Big Question” on the origin of life, Hawking and the viewers of A Brief History of Time can sense the religious clouds forming. He wonders whether God had a choice in creating the universe.
One can also see a parallel between Hawking and the universe of his theories. Like the universe, he, too, has reached his physical limits. For nearly fifty years he’s outlived his death sentence. His mind strives to understand the totality of life. In this way, like an artist, he has created an infinity of possibilities in the finite temporality (the collapsing state) of his existence.
Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.