Film Review: The Theory of Everything

The transatlantic “At the Movies with yours truly and Susan Corbett (Liverpool Humanist Group and the British Humanist Association) is back. This time we’re discussing The Theory of Everything.

Jason Heap: I was immediately drawn to this film because of my fascination with Stephen Hawking’s fame. As you’re the biology teacher, I imagine that you’d be immediately interested in the movie.

Susan Corbett: Hawking is someone I have admired for many years. In Britain he’s not only recognized for his amazing insight and theories into space and time, but for his complete refusal to give in to the debilitating illness that has taken over his body.

JH: The Theory of Everything is a love story: not just between Hawking and his first wife Jane Wilde, but his love for science and his desire and passionate pursuit of the single unifying mathematical equation that would explain everything. The film begins with Hawking as an assured postgraduate student from the University of Oxford embarking on a PhD in physics at the University of Cambridge.

SC: Hawking’s sense of humor is apparent when he meets Jane at a party and introduces himself as a cosmologist. When she asks what that is, he cheekily replies, “a kind of religion for intelligent atheists.” The film illustrates that only after a lecture by the mathematician Roger Penrose does Hawking realize where his passion lies: the origin and evolution of the universe. It’s also around this time, at the age of twenty-one, that Hawking is diagnosed with a degenerative motor neuron disease which affects the cells that control all muscle activity, including speech and breathing—thereby eventually trapping his fully-functioning mind inside his body. After receiving a prognosis of only two years to live, the film tracks the couple’s struggle to fight the disease as Hawking embarks on his most ambitious scientific work yet on the very thing he’s running out of: time.

JH: The film has both witty and poignantly sad moments as the couple struggles to maintain a modicum of “normalcy” in their lives for the sake of their three children. There are the constant changes that have to be made as Hawking’s body becomes increasingly weak, such as the strangely American-sounding computerized voice he uses when he can no longer speak (which he still refuses to change despite huge improvements in synthesized speech.) Throughout it all, and to this day, his mind has stayed sharp and the film celebrates his wit, his intelligence, and his humor.

SC: I was disappointed with the lack of science in the film. It’s about one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, but for me it concentrated a little too much on his personal life. I would have liked to see more of the remarkable theories and research he had been involved in throughout his career. There’s an episode of a five-part British television documentary called The Genius of Britain that I frequently use in classes to teach about his scientific contributions.

JH: I remember that series very well. In the fifth episode Hawking is interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who asks Hawking about his atheism. Hawking replies, “The question is: Is the way the universe began chosen by God for reasons we can’t understand, or was it determined by a law of science? I believe the second. If you like, you can call the laws of science ‘God,’ but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you could meet, and ask questions.”

SC: The Theory of Everything also highlighted Hawking’s atheism and optimistic ethic in life. Near the end of the film, someone from an audience asks Hawking, “You state that you do not believe in God, do you have a philosophy of life that helps you?”

“It is clear that we are just an advanced breed of primates on a minor planet orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among around a hundred billion galaxies,” he replies. “But, ever since the dawn of civilization people have craved for an understanding of the underlying order of the world. There ought to be something very special about the boundary conditions of the universe,” he says, then asks what could be more special than no boundary at all. Likewise, Hawking states there should be no boundary to human endeavor. “However bad things may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there is life there is hope.”

JH & SC: All in all the performances by Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane are remarkable, as they guide you through the many difficulties and triumphs the couple faced. And the well-researched sets transport you back into 1960s Britain. We give this film two thumbs-up and nine out of ten stars!

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