Release Date(s)1991 (March 18, 2014)
Studio(s)Amblin Entertainment/Triton Pictures (Criterion - Spine #699)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
When it was first released back in the early 1990s, Errol Morris’ A Brief History of Time was highly successful for a documentary, riding on the wave of popularity generated by Stephen Hawking’s book of the same name. The film is actually only loosely based on the book, which limits itself to matters of science. The documentary is essentially a biography of Hawking’s early years, covering stories of his youth, his school and college days, his diagnosis of ALS, and his early work and contributions to physics. This is interspersed with animations and drawings that illustrate some of his now landmark early theories relating to physics, black holes, and the Big Bang. Hawking himself narrates the documentary, and we hear from many others in interview footage, including members of the Hawking family, some of Stephen’s longtime friends, and fellow theoretical physicists like Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne.
As good as the documentary is, however, it does leave today’s viewer a little wanting. First, because the film was shot right after Stephen’s separation from his first wife, Jane Wilde-Hawking, she’s nowhere to be found here, and she played a critical role in his life. What’s more, some of the scientific ideas presented in the film have since been made obsolete by Stephen himself, who has continued to refine and advance his own theories, and others. For example, in the film Stephen forwards the idea that the Universe could one day contract and end in a Big Crunch. But in recent years, astrophysicists have shown that the Universe is, in fact, expanding ever faster, driven by a mysterious force in the vacuum of space called Dark Energy. So it now seems there will never be a Big Crunch… the Universe is likely to continue simply expanding forever. Also, while it’s often said that nothing can escape a black hole, Stephen has shown that black holes eventually disappear because something does escape them – black body radiation due to quantum effects near the event horizon that’s now known as Hawking radiation.
Criterion’s Blu-ray presents the film in excellent HD video quality at its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The film was scanned in 4K resolution for this release in a process supervised by cinematographer John Bailey and approved by Morris. Audio is presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1. Dialogue is clean, with light atmospheric use of the surround channels. The Philip Glass score presents well in the mix.
The Blu-ray includes two on-disc bonus features. The first is a 2013 interview with Morris (34:19) and the second is a 2013 interview with Bailey (11:42). Both are in full HD, and are interesting in terms of placing this film and the documentary form itself in context. Morris also provides interesting observations on Hawking and his world, and reveals that all of the interview footage (including shots of Stephen in his office) was filmed on soundstage recreations. There’s also a nice thick booklet in the case with an essay by film critic David Sterritt, as well as excerpts from Hawking’s 2013 memoir “My Brief History” and also his original 1988 book “A Brief History of Time.” Finally, you get a DVD copy of the film as well.
Despite the fact that the film at times seems incomplete and a bit out of date, A Brief History of Time remains a fascinating documentary history of Hawking’s early life and professional career. If you’ve seen the Oscar-nominated drama The Theory of Everything about Hawking, this documentary makes an excellent companion piece and Criterion’s Blu-ray is certainly the best way to experience it.
- Bill Hunt