A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME
Review by Gordon Justesen
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Features: See Review
Length: 84 Minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2014
“Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going?”
Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time is one of the more unique documentaries I’ve ever experienced. It does quite a riveting job of placing you inside the mind of its subject. Morris is one of the most renowned documentary filmmakers in existence and though he’s made more ground-breaking films than this, it is nonetheless as fascinating as you’d expect.
The subject of the piece is world renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who wrote a book of the same title. What differs mostly between the film and the book is that in the film, Morris has provided extensive insight into Hawking’s personal life. And truth be told, those are the portions I found most intriguing.
The use of computer graphics in illustrating Hawking’s various theories about the universe (accompanied by Hawking himself via voice narration) are also appealing in that, for a documentary, it’s an original touch. But then again, with a subject like Hawking, such a technique is the right way to go. And for a documentary that was made in 1991, such a maneuver had to be unheard of for this particular genre.
But, again, the reflections on Hawking’s younger years (especially during his time at Oxford) are the moments in A Brief History of Time that leave the biggest impression. I’ve always admired Hawking for the strength he’s had to pull through his ALS condition. And so getting a chance to see him being able to function in the days before the disease struck him, even if through old black and white photos, was mesmerizing because I had never got the chance to pay witness to that point in this life.
Again, Errol Morris has made some of the most important documentaries on record. Films such as The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Standard Operating Procedure are bright shining examples of why documentaries are vital to the film medium. A Brief History of Time doesn’t quite stand up to those aforementioned films only because it serves are more of a snapshot into one man’s mind, where as those other films opened the viewers eyes into big time topics...but it remains a most fascinating view!
Criterion has easily delivered one of the absolute best looking documentaries I’ve ever experienced on Blu-ray. The talking head segments, in particular, look extremely terrific (so much to the point that you’d never guess this was made over 20 years ago). The various computer graphics, documents and charts used in the illustration of Hawking’s theories also hold up very well too. I wasn’t expecting a film of this type with such age to appear as good as it did...but then again, it IS Criterion!
It’s not everyday you come across a documentary on Blu-ray with a DTS HD 5.1 mix, but Criterion has pulled off the unthinkable this time around. Since this is strictly a monologue driven piece, though, all of the sound action is very much limited to the front channel. The standout ingredient here is the absorbing music score provided by Philip Glass, which the movie is rarely without in the background.
There are only two video interview segments featured on this release; the first with filmmaker Errol Morris and the second with cinematographer John Bailey, both adding up to about 50 minutes. There is also a neat insert booklet featuring an essay by critic David Sterritt, as well as a chapter from Hawking's 2013 memoir, “My Brief History” and an excerpt from Hawking's 1988 book, “A Brief History Of Time”.
I had long wanted to see A Brief History of Time because I wanted to learn more about Stephen Hawking, but even more than that because any documentary by Errol Morris, no matter what the subject, is worth ANYONE’S time. It’s a brief (no pun intended) but effectively absorbing experience made even more so by Criterion’s terrific Blu-ray handling!