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Case Number 27096: Small Claims Court

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A Brief History of Time (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection

Criterion // 1991 // 84 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Matthew Schofield (Retired) // March 18th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Matt Schofield is feeling intellectually inadequate.

The Charge

Which came first, the chicken or the universe?

Opening Statement

Stephen Hawking is the most brilliant astrophysicist of the 20th century. Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, The Fog of War) is one of the most revered documentarians alive. Together they present a film that combines a biography of Hawking with an exposition of Hawking's theories regarding Black Holes, the origins of our universe, and the concept of time itself.

Facts of the Case

At the age of 21, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. To that point, Hawking was a college student at Oxford University who, to his own admission, studied roughly one hour a day for the entirety of his time there. As the disease began to manifest itself and slowly deteriorate Hawking's physical body, his brain remained unaffected. From that point on, Hawking dedicated himself to the development of his ideas on time and the universe which would culminate in his book, A Brief History of Time.

The Evidence

Morris' film, A Brief History of Time, combines talking head interviews of Hawking's family, friends, and colleagues with voiceover from Hawking himself commenting on the circumstances of his life and expounding on his theories. Hawking's computerized voice takes a while to get used to, but it appealingly accentuates his dry sense of humor and anecdotal style of storytelling. True to the director's style, Morris' camera remains static, keeping a distance from his subject. However, in this instance, it comes off as slightly more clinical and detached, albeit gorgeously lit with his subjects bathed in tones of blue and black. This talking head footage is interspersed with animation that details some of Hawking's concepts and helps steer the content away from total austerity.

Hawking himself is remarkably accessible as a thinker and never loses us while explaining his theories. This is no small feat, given the high minded concepts he delves into. While I've not read the book from which the film is adapted, Morris admits he was less interested in a straightforward adaptation, but rather an insight into Hawking's life and work as a whole. As such, I now find myself wanting to seek out the book, if only to gain a better understanding and learn more about Hawking's ideas.

Beginning as more or less a biography, A Brief History of Time gradually shifts its focus towards Hawking's scientific concepts of Black Holes (which originally went by the clumsy handle of "Gravitationally Completely Collapsed Objects") and the bigger mysteries surrounding the creation and expansion of the universe. While the biographical elements are fascinating, most of my enjoyment was derived from it's coverage of Hawking's research and achievements.

Presented in 1.85:1/1080p HD, the 4K restoration of this 13 year old documentary is remarkable, with nary a scratch or dirt speck to be found. Phenomenal job. The 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is rich and full, filling the room more than adequately, despite the fact it doesn't push the format to its limits.

Being a Criterion release bonus are a given, and A Brief History of Time (Blu-ray) features two separate interviews with Errol Morris and director of photography John Bailey. Morris shows a definite affection for his film and is quite engaging as an interviewee. He discusses how, after the rights to the book were acquired, no studio knew what to do with it. The text certainly wouldn't work as a traditional Hollywood feature and even Morris himself was unsure how he could approach the source material, fearful of tackling the daunting subject of Stephen Hawking. He shares several anecdotes, surrounding the filming itself, as well as his working relationship with composer Philip Glass who provided the soundtrack. Among the insights: the office in which the footage of Hawking was shot was a reproduction of Hawking's actual office, accurate down to the Marilyn Monroe posters which adorned the walls, providing an amusing tale for Morris to relate. Perhaps the best soundbite from the interview is his description, not inaccurate, of Hawking as the first non-talking talking head in motion picture history. Cinematographer John Bailey is equally affable and goes into the various challenges that arose while shooting a film featuring a main character who is essentially immobile. The production team only had access to Hawking for two days(!) and would use a separate wheelchair for several shots in which he was not specifically shown. Bailey also describes the watercolor paintings of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, the subject of a Paul Schrader film he had shot (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, also a Criterion release), as inspiration for the lighting and composition of the interviews.

Included in the accompanying booklet are an essay by critic and Columbia film professor David Sterritt, as well as a recollection by Hawking himself from his memoir My Brief History. We also get a standard def DVD Copy of the film.

Closing Statement

To hear Stephen Hawking tell it, the diagnosis of ALS was the turning point of his life. It's hard to argue with him; His own mother, Isobel, agrees though qualifies it by saying that while ALS is a horrible affliction to be thrust upon anyone, her son arguably made the best of a situation most would've believed impossible. Hawking is blessed with a mind like few others, and to have his most powerful asset unaffected by this condition went a long way towards honing of his considerable talents.

The Verdict

Criterion's release of this fascinating and entertaining documentary is acquitted on all charges.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 95

Perp Profile

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 84 Minutes
Release Year: 1991
MPAA Rating: Rated G
• Blu-ray
• Documentary
• Science and Nature

Distinguishing Marks

• Interviews
• Booklet
• DVD Copy


• IMDb

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