THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING makes me want to scream. It features Eddie Redmayne’s impressive performance as Stephen Hawking, which will surely make him the frontrunner for a Best Actor trophy. But it squanders this brilliance by failing to communicate what should be the main point of the story. It focuses so much on Hawking’s disability and first marriage, and so thoroughly fails to illustrate his achievements, that it is one of the most disappointing biopics in recent memory. Stephen Hawking is a brilliant scientist, and yet the science is mostly ignored here, or when it isn’t, is dumbed down to near-absurdity. That’s like having a biopic of Ray Charles where there is no music, and instead it focuses on his blindness and relationships.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING starts with Stephen Hawking in graduate school at Cambridge, when he still had a fully functional body. In fact, the story begins with him meeting his future wife Jane (Felicity Jones). From there it covers their courtship, marriage, family life, relationship strains, and divorce, while simultaneously showing Hawking’s tragic physical decline. But the science, the very reason for his greatness and popularity, is an afterthought at best.
The core of the problem is that THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING is adapted from Hawking’s ex-wife’s book. A fair bit of the film is devoted to her, and seeing things from her perspective. She’s got plenty of redeeming qualities, not the least of which are having stuck with Stephen after he was diagnosed with his motor neuron disease, caring for him for years, almost singlehandedly raising their family, and even saving his life. But many thousands of people have been in a similar situation, and we don’t make biopics about them. Stephen Hawking, on the other hand, will be remembered for centuries. She should be in the film of course, but focusing half the movie on her, especially when it comes at the cost of any deep exploration what makes him so revered, is a real missed opportunity.
It isn’t that the science is botched here (though it is sometimes), it is that they don’t even really try. If you aren’t already familiar with his work, you’ll come out of the film not really even knowing what Stephen Hawking is famous for. Instead, you get a vague sense that it has something to do with time, or a black hole at the beginning of time, or a subscription to Penthouse. Every scene with a physicist is almost comically misguided. In this universe, every time a physicist talks to another physicist, they dumb things down so much, it is as if they think all their colleagues are retarded elementary school dropouts.
I know most people in the audience won’t understand the hardcore jargon if they left it in, but they could still have physicists talk at least semi-realistically. It doesn’t matter if the audience understands every word -- the function is to transmit tone and authenticity. Whatever you want them to really understand can be communicated by another character asking about it later. If you overheard a scientific conversation between Stephen Hawking and a group of Cambridge physicists, would you expect to understand every word they say? Hell, I wouldn’t, and I do astrophysics for a living. Look at PRIMER -- nobody understands what the hell the characters are saying at the beginning of the movie, and the film feels all the more authentic for it.
I admit that I may well be in the minority here. I hated A BEAUTIFUL MIND for similar reasons, although that abomination went a step farther and just made up its own reality out of whole cloth. At least THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING roughly sticks to the facts, and doesn’t bury inconvenient bits like divorces. The film addresses the fact that the relationship between Stephen and Jane didn’t work out, and Stephen later got into a relationship with his nurse. It gets points for that, but this makes it all the more puzzling that, out of Stephen Hawking’s entire life, the thing they’d entirely focus on is a failed relationship.
When you can’t put believable words in the actors’ mouths, that’s a problem with the writing, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten certainly deserves blame for that. But the direction is no better. DIrector James Marsh made MAN ON WIRE, which was brilliant. But that was a documentary. He isn’t so great at making choices here. The film feels a little manipulative, with warm tones, framing, and a musical score that give the romantic scenes a little too much of a storybook feel. The real crime is in failing to convey the subject matter though.
How could they have dramatized his fairly abstract work? Black hole scenes! As I have learned from a my own forays into science communication, people get irrationally excited about those damn things -- they really go apeshit for them. And that’s what Hawking is most famous for! This is film here! Show us how people used to think a black hole works. Then show how they really work -- virtual photons becoming real -- these effectively imaginary loopholes in a law of quantum mechanics, being summoned into our reality, only for one twin to be ripped out of existence by a black hole! This is Hawking radiation! And it has profound implications -- black holes aren’t black, and they evaporate! It is thematically important too -- it is the confluence of gravity and quantum mechanics, which is at the core of the quest for the theory of everything. Show us that! For Christ sakes, don’t show us chalk boards with equations as set decoration, and brilliant minds reduced to mumbling mindless platitudes, as if this were an episode of masterpiece theater.
This is a man whose body is the ultimate cage, and yet can reach out with his mind across the universe and deduce *using pure fucking thought* how it all works. He doesn’t need a spaceship, he just uses his goddamn mind! While most of the rest of the world are just talking gibberish, he speaks the fucking language of God. He’s like Neo in THE MATRIX -- he can see through reality and see the numbers underpinning it all raining down. He doesn’t quite have the abilities of a normal human, and yet he’s superhuman. And he’s a cyborg for crying out loud. Instead we get silliness like does his dick work? He reads penthouse! Isn’t that cute! This is a superhero story, not a goddamn romance or freakshow.
To understand why I’m so angry, it is important to explain what a missed opportunity this is. Eddie Redmayne’s performance is exceptional. He looks like Stephen Hawking, for a start. And he does an outstanding job of not just physically showing, but emotionally communicating every heartbreaking step of his physical decline. He starts off being clumsy and tripping, then barely being able to walk or grasp with his contorted hands and feet. He gradually loses almost all motor control, and is confined to a wheelchair. His speech becomes impaired, and ultimately he loses it completely. In the final stages we can only see the desperation on his face, and only through his eyes. Be we can also see hope and humor. Redmayne spent months observing patients in various stages of motor neuron diseases, and working with doctors and movement coaches. All the time he put in shows, because he nailed it.
At some level it doesn’t matter how much the actor looks like and embodies the subject if the substance is wrong. What’s the point? When you mimic someone different with no redeeming reason, it runs the risk of becoming the disabled version of blackface. This doesn’t go that far, but you could argue that when you focus on the disability at the expense of the underlying nature of the person, it is borderline offensive. Intention does matter though, and I know the creators were intending to honor, not to ridicule. They just didn’t weren’t up to the task. Well, Eddie Redmayne knocked it out of the park, but then his director let him down.
At the premiere, someone asked the filmmakers whether or not Stephen Hawking had seen the film and whether he liked it. They explained all the complicated logistics of getting him to see it, and how they were waiting with anticipation to see what he thought. But afterward he simply said, “Broadly true.” They said, “We’ll take it.” But hoo boy, that’s damning with faint praise.
Maybe the biggest irony of the title is that there is no “theory of everything.” It is a dream that has consumed the lives of thousands of brilliant physicists. It has seen a ton of work by well-meaning and brilliant people who have come up empty-handed. In that sense, it is almost a fitting title for this movie. And yet it is simultaneously a huge lie, because it implies scientific content, when there isn’t really any. They should have just called it FAILED CRIPPLE ROMANCE, because tonally and literally, that’s the film they made.