I love physics. To be more accurate, I love all the space sciences. This ties in to my enjoyment of science fiction series like Star Trek and Star Wars, and from watching documentary series like Nova on Public Broadcasting as a kid. Plus, like most people, I love underdog stories. So, when I learned about Professor Stephen Hawkings, a physicist from the UK who helped to expand our knowledge of how the universe works in spite of the disease that was slowly destroying him – Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. So, when I learned there was a film based on his book “A Brief History of Time”, where he explained the basics of quantum mechanics to a mass audience. I leaped at the chance to watch it.
The film, from director Errol Morris (director of the acclaimed documentary “The Thin Blue Line”), takes a split focus, with two “plot threads” (not really plot but, you get the drift) intercut. One half of it is biographical, telling the story of Stephen’s life, up to the present – documenting his struggles with ALS, including the how he got the use of his voice synthizer. The story is told by Stephen’s family, his friends, his colleagues, and by Stephen himself. Before I watched this movie, I essentially had little to no knowledge of Stephen’s history. I figured the process was difficult to overcome, but I didn’t quite understand how difficult it was.
The second half of the film relates to the gist of the book where the film takes it’s title. The film, through Stephen and his colleagues, explains some of the important points that are brought up in Stephen’s book, particularly related to Black Holes and to the expansion and contraction of the universe. The film uses computer graphics and a few slow motion photography shots to illustrate some of the points brought up in Hawking’s work (specifically using examples from Hawking’s book). I understood the essential elements about how this worked from reading the book myself, as well as from other science programs and other books about physics, but when I first saw the film, the illustrations really helped to get across the ideas for how black holes worked to me.
All of this is accompanied by an excellent score by Philip Glass. As I mentioned in my review for Koyaanisqatsi, Glass’s music works best when it has images to accompany it – on its own it’s kind of monotonous. Here the film has plenty of solid images working for it, and the film really works well with Glass’ musical style. For those unfamiliar with Philip Glass, his music focuses a lot on strings, with what I’d best describe as small repeated riffs. On their own, they’re bland, but with images, they do an excellent job of imparting a mood.
I really liked this movie, and I’m giving it my full recommendation. It’s got plenty for fans of science, even if you already know some of the concepts in this anyway. If you’re not a big science fan, this is one of the few places where you can really learn this much biographical information about Prof. Hawking firsthand.