|Stephen Hawking is like the WAY smarter Mr. Darcy.|
There’s an AP prompt we give to the students almost every year. The excerpt the prompt asks the students to analyze is from John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza. In the passage Barry makes a comparison between scientists and explorers of the American frontier. James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything reminded me of this prompt.
In the 20th Century, Westerns were hugely popular. And, for the most part, they still are. However, unlike audiences in the 20th Century, audiences in the 21st do not live in such close generational proximity to those with first hand experiences on the frontier. In other words, the passage of time has dislodged us from knowing those individuals who cleared the land, laid the tracks, and settled the homesteads on which our century was built. Not only is experience sifting evermore through the sieve of myth, but the myth is ever more distant.
However, we’re not that far removed from those who split the atom, sent astronauts into space, and transformed our overall understandings of time and space. In other words, we’re not that far removed from the 20th Century scientists whose discoveries and inventions shape our current century. And we can see this proximity in contemporary film’s having traded badges for lab coats.
|Scientists used to look like this; then Russell Crow taught us about a beautiful mind.|
Growing up, science in the movies was either reserved for the distant future or something to laugh at in the present. Think of the scientists in Ghostbusters or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In these films of the late 80s and early 90s, science was geek chic comedy. In some ways, Big Bang Theory still thinks in this mode, which dates back to any film Walt Disney ever made starring Fred MacMurray (The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961 or The Shaggy Dog in 1959). Of course, there were also those ridiculous Kurt Russell films in the 1970s, like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. But it’s the Fred MacMurray films that capture perfectly how for most of the 20th Century science on screen was always some corny hybrid of magic and physics. The chemistry involved with inventing flubber required the same suspension of belief as a boy who transforms into a harmless werewolf.
The Theory of Everything, based off Jane Hawking’s book, treats science as this same sort of playful, magical thing, as if wormholes and Spanish baroque poetry might be one and the same. And who is to say they aren’t? In this sense, the film never loses sight of its humanity, but it may lose the science. This tradeoff is not a weakness of the film rather it simply changes what the film requires from its audience. After all, a Hollywood production is an impossible modality in which to explain and comprehend A Brief History of Time.
And yet a Hollywood production can explain quite a bit about love and marriage, both of which, like the universe, are either expanding or contracting. Love is not a stagnant emotion. And no scene in the film brings together the notion of every heart being a star with its own gravitational pull quite like the ball dancing scene where Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) tells Jane (Felicity Jones), “I don’t dance.” However, to make up for this shortcoming he explains to her how UV rays work. In this instant, the magic of science is in its ability to explain and so a relationship is born out of a decrease in wonder. And isn’t that what every relationship is? Something that begins in the vastness of an unknowable space and then shrinks until death do us part.
|This man stole Fred MacMurray's Oscar.|
In discussions of the past year’s films, The Theory of Everything was often paired with The Imitation Game. After all, both films feature commanding performances by British leads with elegant cheekbones. And yet both also imply a future where humans and machines might be a hybrid species. At the time in their lives when Jane and Stephen divorce he is somewhat of a cyborg. And, in The Imitation Game, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) names his decryption machine after his boyhood love. The ability of these two films to humanize machines and vice versa enters them into dialogue with Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her.
While much less explicit in doing so, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game reveal how the scientific discoveries of the last century have placed us on a new frontier that we are only beginning to understand is not science fiction but lived experience. The Romantic age is not over—we simply traded our goblins and ghouls for iPhones and robots.
Feel free to follow Bryan Harvey at @LawnChairBoys. Most of the time it's about basketball.