A Not Quite Definitive Brief History Of Time

For several years, A Brief History of Time was available on DVD exclusively from Discovery as part of their Science Channel line.  I would read people opining for this film's availability on disc on various forums feeling like one of a very few who had any idea it existed.  The generic cover doesn't even demarcate it as an Errol Morris film.  It's honestly one of the discs I was most eager to alert the world to when I started DVDExotica.  But by the time I did, Criterion had rendered it obsolete, releasing it as a DVD/ BD combo pack (or stand-alone DVD) in 2014.  Oh well, it's still a title I'm keen to cover here, so let's get into it.
I used to own a copy but never quite got around to reading Stephen Hawking's 1988 best seller, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang To Black Holes.  When this supposed adaptation came out in 1991, I was surprised to find that the film is a unique, and to some disappointing, blend of your standard biography about the world's most famous theoretical physicist along with the expected exploration of his scientific work.  The book, after all, was intended to be an overview of cosmology and the nature of our world for layman readers.  And Hawking himself apparently battled Morris quite extensively on the inclusion of all his personal history, which make up way more than half of this picture.  But according to Morris, it's all there in the book, if between the lines.  In an interview included on Criterion's release, Morris explains, "I'm not the person comparing the scientific ideas to biography.  It's Stephen Hawking who's doing it... So when Hawking writes about black holes - these regions of space/ time from which nothing can escape - he is making the comparison with himself.  That is what's so fascinating." 
Well, it's certainly eminently watchable, like all of Morris's work.  Hawking is obviously a singularly unique man, but his story can feel rather bog standard: overcoming the adversity of his crippling disease to develop a unique ability with which to distinguish himself.  Far be it for me to dismiss a film for being too personal, but the world could do with far fewer quasi-inspirational Murderball-style docs.*  But Morris makes it all sing.  The interviews are all great, as his always are, and Phillip Glass's lush score makes the film glide over the film's distinguished imagery (every interview location is actually a carefully art-designed set).  It's full of the director's usual eccentricities, intercutting clips from 1979's The Black Hole, early implementation of CGI imagery, or just the decision to open this film with a close-up of a confused chicken floating through outer space.  And you will still come out of the experience having learned something about the leading theories of the origins of the universe and the nature of time.
1) 2009 Discovery DVD; 2) 2014 Criterion DVD; 3) 2014 Criterion BD.
The first thing you've probably noticed is that Discovery's disc looks way over-saturated compared to Criterion's far more authentic and attractive colors.  Also, four out of every nine frames are interlaced.  So it was a nice little stop-gap release, but it's all about the Criterion now.  They've restored the film in 4k from the original camera negative, supervised by DoP John Bailey and approved by Morris.  It's surprisingly gorgeous for a 2014 blu.  They've also properly matted the film, so we technically lose a little picture (mostly along the bottom), it's now properly re-framed from 1.78:1 to 1.85.  There is a tiny bit of film damage (look at the white curtains on the far right in the second set of images) added to the mix that wasn't on the Discovery, but Criterion is still so superior.  I had been fairly happy with my Discovery DVD; and while I was looking forward to the jump to HD, I was not expecting such a decisive upgrade.

Discovery has a basic but perfectly respectable Dolby Digital stereo track.  For whatever reason, Criterion has spread it out to 5.1, but also bumped it up to DTS-HD and included English subtitles.
The Discovery DVD, as you might expect, is completely barebones apart from a couple of Discovery commercials that play on start-up.  Criterion, on the other hand, came up with a couple strong extras, including the excellent Morris interview quoted earlier.  There's also an on-camera interview with Bailey, and a booklet with notes by David Sterritt of the National Society of Film Critics and excerpts from some of Hawking's books.  Good stuff, but not exactly a packed special edition.  It's made all the more frustrating by the fact that when this film was first released on VHS, there was a second tape with an excellent, half-hour documentary called The Making Of a Brief History of Time?  How did that get decoupled from this?  I was also sort of hoping for the excellent, 46 minute IFC documentary, A Brief History Of Errol Morris, but I could see that might be trickier to license.  And despite the titular reference, it's more of an overview on the career of Morris than A Brief History in particular, so it's not as essential as The Making Of, whose absence is felt quite strongly.
A UHD would render the film grain a little more precisely, but I don't see a 4k disc in the cards for a smaller title like this.  Sure, I'd upgrade if it came out, but we really don't need it; this is an exceptional BD.  Well, unless another region could get The Making Of someday.  But this was probably our only shot.  Fortunately they got everything else right.


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