Film in Oxford: ‘The Theory of Everything’ covers everything but science

– Professor Stephen Hawking is a physicist and professor of mathematics who has made amazing contributions to cosmology through his work on the Big Bang and black holes.

– Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man who was tragically struck by ALS at a young age and struggled to overcome this to become the world’s most celebrated scientist.

These two stories are not incompatible with each other. Of course not; they are both the story of the same man. However, it is not hard to guess which story is being told in The Theory of Everything. Quite frustratingly, the movie, which is otherwise commendable, fails to avoid the pitfall of depicting a scientist’s life without properly discussing his science.

The film itself is enjoyable and well put together, although it becomes sentimental at times. Eddie Redmayne’s lead performance is astonishing, barely distinguishable from the real Hawking. He portrays Hawking’s ALS deterioration with impressive accuracy, especially considering the film starts with Hawking being a healthy first-year PhD student at Cambridge in 1962 and ends with him visiting the Queen, wheelchair-bound and relying on his famous speaking computer. Incidentally, Hawking’s real computer voice is used for these scenes, which enhances Redmayne’s convincing embodiment of the scientist.

Surprisingly enough, the film is based on the autobiography of Hawking’s ex-wife Jane, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. Despite this source, it very much resembles that other Stephen Hawking biopic, Hawking (2004), starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch, aside from looking a lot less like Hawking, did not get the opportunity to display whether he is as good as Redmayne at portraying the development of ALS, as this film only focused on Hawking’s PhD years. Still, there are definite similarities: both films involve a hospital scene with gruelling close-ups of a spinal tap; both contain an epiphany scene with Hawking scribbling sciencey things on a huge blackboard while alone in the lab; and both show Hawking stumbling over his own feet while still playing a decent game of croquet. The most disappointing similarity, however, is the way in which Hawking’s PhD research is presented to the viewer. In fragments of conversations, lectures and blackboard drawings, it is made clear that stars getting smaller and smaller can create singularities, and that Hawking somehow proved (reinforced?) the idea that the universe originated with such a singularity: the Big Bang.

The part that covers the Big Bang research involves Hawking writing down a lot of equations; how exactly these are connected to the idea of the Big Bang is left unclear. A viewer may even end up thinking that Hawking invented the idea of the Big Bang. Still, the equations are there, and this is not the case with ToE’s depiction of Hawking’s other huge, initially controversial discovery: Hawking radiation. Black holes radiate, which means that they will shrink over time and eventually disappear. This is simply depicted as an epiphany that came to Hawking one night as he was staring into his fireplace. In reality, though, it was at least as fiercely debated as his work on the Big Bang, and an even more significant contribution to science. ToE makes it look as if Hawking’s entire PhD thesis is based on one long day’s worth of calculating on a blackboard; his viva takes two minutes with no cut scene in it. The film also presents his most important work as a light-bulb moment, rather than the result of enormous mathematical efforts that he first needed to master before being able to apply them to his own concepts, a process that took months, if not years. Because of this, The Theory of Everything begs the question, how interesting would science really be if all that was needed for the next revolution was one night in front of the fireplace?

K. Dihal

‘The Theory of Everything’ is showing at the Ultimate Picture Palace on Saturday 21st February at 2pm, and on Monday 23rd February at 6.30pm.

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on MsKanta and commented:
    As I mentioned in a previous blog, everyone was asking me if I’d seen ‘The Theory of Everything’. Here is my review, and I included some remarks about that *other* Stephen Hawking biopic as well.

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