Picks and Pans Review: A Brief History of Time

updated 09/07/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1992 01:00AM

Documentary

British theoretical physicist—cosmologist Stephen Hawking, 50, is the most famous (although not necessarily the most important) physical scientist since Albert Einstein, partly for his work on the nature of black holes, but more because he wrote A Brief History of Time, a primer on teleological questions ("Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?") that has sold 5.5 million copies. He is even more notable because he has managed to do his work under conditions that have left his body immobilized but his brain and spirit intact. Suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease), he is confined to a wheelchair, able to communicate only by typing into a computer that synthesizes the human voice.

That mechanical voice, which narrates portions of this peculiar but fascinating documentary, meshes oddly well with Philip Glass' pulsating score. Director Errol (The Thin Blue Line) Morris divides Brief History into a brief biography and a kind of magic-lantern show illustrating Hawking's notions of time and the universe.

The film begins beautifully, with the sort of striking, if slightly baffling, touches that Morris used in The Thin Blue Line, his 1988 documentary about a wrongful murder conviction in Dallas. As Hawking's mother, Isobel, a wiry, red-cheeked woman in her 80s, remembers his birth in 1942, Morris cuts to footage of that era's firebombing of London, as well as to old family portraits. Other incidents from Hawking's early life are summed up with images of a Monopoly board, an oar gliding through green water, a leafless tree against pale winter light.

If anything, there is more mystery in the biographical sections than in the cosmic stuff, which Morris treats almost whimsically. A hen appeal's against a field of stars as Hawking asks, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" A wristwatch floats through a black hole that, for some reason, is gray. A pair of teacups, a pair of dice, tumble through space. Morris even uses clips from Disney's 1979 sci-fi flop, The Black Hole.

You may find yourself getting lost, though, as the discussion of black holes (which may outnumber the stars) gives way to talk of something called imaginary time, and as a series of physicists and other academics (none of them clearly identified) bat around ideas. This much is established: If an astronaut falls through a black hole, he will be restored to the universe in some form, perhaps energy. (A black hole doesn't absorb absolutely everything, like some sort of cornucopia in reverse.) Hawking thinks that the universe, which is now expanding, someday will contract. Hawking, black holes, Errol Morris, this movie: Even if they never make complete sense, they are all enigmatically intriguing phenomena. (Unrated)

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