With Oscar season upon us, I felt it was my duty as a disability studies & media scholar to sit through the latest Stephen Hawking bio-pic, Theory of Everything. What follows is my review of a wholly mediocre movie that likely only got nominated because it featured a nondisabled guy pretending to be a disabled guy. As with most reviews, the following may (read: likely does) contain spoilers – consider yourself adequately warned.
Full disclosure, I actually know very little about Stephen Hawking. I know that might seem like some kind of disabled person sin, that I should worship him as my lord and saviour, but I’m just not particularly interested in the guy outside of the copy of A Brief History of Time currently gathering dust on my bookshelf. My lack of Hawking knowledge could have contributed to much of my confusion throughout the film, as I think a strong grasp of Hawking’s personal life is necessary to follow the plot, as the film requires the viewer to fill in a lot of blanks. After seeing the trailer I genuinely assumed I would hate this movie because of its sappy deployment of disability to strike emotional chords and, therefore, win an Oscar. Instead, it was just a poorly made movie that left me confused most of the time. As someone without a historical Hawking background, I spent much of the movie fumbling my way through contextless scenes where the characters’ emotions didn’t seem to reflect the manifest content on the screen. I legitimately thought that one scene was just an overly emotional conversation about Hawking going on a trip to America without his wife but apparently they were deciding to get a divorce? If the viewer can’t tell when people are breaking up, that’s a pretty strong indication that the movie is not doing its job.
On the whole, this film just wasn’t very good.
But there is more to talk about than entertainment value, style or structure. If nothing else, this film presents an opportunity to explore the normate fantasy of disability, an imagination of disabled life formed by those without disabilities. One of the first things I noticed while watching this film is the fact that after being diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease, Hawking suddenly ceases to be at the university and becomes largely confined to the home. To begin the film, Hawking’s life is dominated by the university, with most scenes occurring in his dorm, in class, or at the campus bar. But as soon as Hawking starts using a wheelchair, the remainder of the film is spent almost exclusively in private settings (predominantly his family home). In fact, the university (or his work) are rarely even referenced once he begins using a wheelchair, aside from passing comments about him working on his ‘theory of everything’ and assurances that he’s now “world famous.” This seems to confirm Susan Wendall’s work, which states that disability is seen as a private problem, something that must remain out of the public eye. In fact, for a movie attempting to tell the story of Hawking’s life, it seems to miss perhaps the most important part of his life — his revolutionary academic work — instead choosing to focus on his long suffering wife and their doomed marriage. Granted, the movie is based off his ex-wife’s memoir…but still…it’s not like he is dead — they could have asked Hawking for more details! Further, Hawking has done some pretty awesome things in his life, not the least of which is going on a zero gravity flight.
This film also relies upon two tired disability delusions, namely the fear of castration and the dream of walking again. Once, just once, I’d like to see a movie about a dude in a wheelchair that never mentions the functioning status of his penis. Despite the fact that Hawking’s penis obviously works, as he fathered three children, the director/writers felt the need to really spell it out for the audience through a clunky scene in which a friend of Hawking asks him whether or not his “motor mouth disease” affects “everything” to which Hawking assures him (and us) that his penis is still functional. This was a huge relief for me because up until that point all I could do was worry about whether or not his penis worked so it was really a load off to finally get a clear answer. Sarcasm.
The second normate delusion this film falls to is the inevitable dream of walking again. Oscar-baiting movies seem destined (doomed?) to repeat this trope over and over again until the Academy finally stops rewarding this schlock. No film of Stephen Hawking could be complete without the obligatory fantasy sequence in which he rises like Lazarus from his chair, walking a few steps and being “normal” again, only to have the cold harsh reality of disability come rushing back in to find him (and by extension us, the viewer) trapped back in his disabled body. If this seems familiar, it’s because Glee did this exact thing in the first season with their character Artie. Whether or not this is realistic, I would argue most physically disabled people don’t have intrusive vivid hallucinations of them walking around doing mundane tasks, I cannot determine what value this scene really adds to the movie. Are we supposed to feel bad because Hawking wants to walk but can’t? Is it to remind us that despite his twisted body and inability to speak, he is still a normal person waiting to get out? Is it a promise that some day he will be able to walk again? Is this magically erected Hawking just a coding way of telling us that Stephen Hawking is sexually aroused by displaced pens? Ultimately, this scene has little to do with Hawking’s story and everything to do with us, the viewer. More correctly, this scene is for the normate viewer: walking again is their fantasy, a wish that must be fulfilled at least once before the curtain falls. This scene is the emotional payoff, the prize you get for sitting through two gruelling hours of watching this poor guy struggle through life.
And that is the real shame of this film; that the best fantasy they could dream up for Hawking was one of walking again. When I think of Stephen Hawking, I imagine a man who dreams of conquering space and time, of defying the known laws of nature, and exploring the universe. My Stephen Hawking dreams so much bigger than bipedal locomotion. I just wish this movie were actually inspired by Hawking and dreamed a lot bigger too.