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Brief History of Time: Criterion Collection, A

The Criterion Collection // G // March 18, 2014
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 11, 2014 | E-mail the Author

Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time (1991) celebrates the thoughts and achievements of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, but it's not exactly a wild party. His early life is examined in modest detail and peppered with his personal thoughts, observations and examples of his work (unlike Hawking's original book, which omits the biography), while friends, family members and colleagues also offer their own thoughts on the man. As usual, Morris lets the people speak for themselves; they're only identified in the end credits and, aside from Hawking's synthesized "speech", no voice-over narration is present. Long-time collaborator Philip Glass also contributes a score that was produced, at the director's request, without him having seen the actual film. The end product is entertaining, informative and thought-provoking.

Early 1990s films typically have a very distinctive look and, while A Brief History of Time falls into that category, it often avoided particular trends. Many of the "talking head" sessions were shot on carefully lit, constructed sets instead of on location, while Hawking's unique means of communication allowed for more liberal edits that transfer his thoughts into an approximate relative of voice-over narration. Charts, maps, diagrams, black-and-white illustrations and, in several cases, computer graphics were used to break up many of the interviews to varying degrees of success. Morris admits in an accompanying interview that the expensive CGI was a bad decision; after all, most computer graphics from that era (and beyond) haven't aged gracefully. Even so, A Brief History of Time is largely impressive from a visual standpoint.

What hasn't aged is the stark contrast between Hawking's progressive mental achievements with his gradually declining physical ability. We see glimpses of the man in younger times and hear stories of day-to-day challenges as he lost the use of his arms and legs. By 1990, Hawking was even in the midst of separating from his wife of almost 30 years, a fact that undoubtedly hampered the participation of certain individuals and dramatically changed the tone of others. But while a semi-biographical documentary of this type almost begs for deeper personal exploration of the subject (or even a new epilogue, taking the film's age into account), A Brief History of Time still works quite well as a snapshot of one man's tiny existence in comparison with the ever-expanding universe. It remains a perfectly accessible production from start to finish, even if you have no experience with astrophysics...and let's face it, most of us don't and never will.

Criterion appears to be breaking the rules of their recent "Dual-Format only" practice, as A Brief History of Time will also get a DVD release next month with a stripped-down booklet and, of course, no Blu-ray. Even so, this combo pack is obviously the more attractive package, mainly due to a recent 4K transfer, numerous visual merits and lossless audio.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

The recipient of a a 4K digital film transfer (supervised by director of photography John Bailey and approved by director Errol Morris), this 1.85:1, 1080p presentation of A Brief History of Time looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish. Filmed partially on constructed sets and carefully lit, the "talking head" segments look especially nice, as do the close-ups of documents, charts, black-and-white illustrations and occasional computer graphics. Image detail and textures are strong, especially considering the source material and relatively low lighting throughout. Film grain is steady without being a distraction, while the chilly color palette is saturated nicely from start to finish. Overall, this is a fantastic effort that easily trumps all other home video editions, especially since the last one was released on VHS over 20 years ago.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

It's unusual for any documentary---especially one from 1991---to be presented in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, but the expanded audio mix certainly has a few benefits. Not surprisingly, the monologue-driven film (including Hawking's "voice-over") is largely anchored up front, while the bulk of the surround usage is dominated by Philip Glass' unique score. Channel separation is obviously present but directional effects are kept to a minimum, creating a largely centered experience that feels natural from start to finish. Optional English (SDH) subtitles are included during the film only.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate on both formats. This two-disc set is locked for Region A/1 players only; it's packaged in the studio's typical "stocky" Blu-ray case with overlapping hubs and adorned with attractive two-sided artwork. A thick accompanying Booklet features an essay by film critic David Sterritt, a chapter from Stephen Hawking's 2013 memoir "My Brief History" and an excerpt from Hawking's eponymous 1988 book.

Bonus Features

Very few, but they're definitely worth a look. Two new Interviews with director Errol Morris (34 minutes) and director of photography John Bailey (14 minutes) were recorded for this release, and the two go into modest detail about their experiences with the production. Morris shares plenty of stories about his interactions with Hawking (including his reluctance about the director's use of biographical content), as well as the challenges and benefits of working with Hawking's "scripted" responses. Bailey also contributes some valuable information about the film's unique appearance, but it's unfortunate that the two couldn't have stretched these sessions out to a feature-length audio commentary.

Final Thoughts

A documentary is only as interesting as its subject matter, so it's no surprise that A Brief History of Time impresses at just about every turn. Hawking remains one of the most intriguing figures in modern history, both for his triumph over physical handicaps and his ever-expanding degree of intelligence. The "family and friends" testimonials, for the most part, are just icing on the cake. Criterion's Dual-Format Edition serves up a fantastic A/V presentation but only a small amount of supplements, most of which are also available on a separate DVD release next month. Either way, this one's undoubtedly worth adding to your collection, even if you're not a committed fan of the genre. Firmly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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