There's no value in the critic pointing out that a new film doesn't matter because an old film got there first. But there's also no real value in a new film trying to cover material that won't ever be improved upon. The thing is, Errol Morris already made A Brief History of Time, and there's simply not much about the life and work of Stephen Hawking that the 80-minute documentary left on the table. That is to say, not unless you actually want to teach dense physics and mathematics to a general audience in film form, in which case there's plenty that Morris overlooked. But that's certainly not the gap that the new Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything is interested in bridging, and so we return to the question of, for serious, why? Why, after 23 years, make a film on this topic that is in every way more shallow and superficial and totally disinterested in the actual meaning of Hawking's work than a perfectly fine documentary by one of the very small number of superstar documentarians? Morris managed in the opening ten minutes of his movie to draw more elegant connections between Hawking's life, physical condition, and mental gymnastics than Theory director James Marsh and writer Anthony McCarten are able to whip up in two hours, using almost exactly the same anecdotes.

Really, though, that's a second-order problem with the movie. The larger problem with The Theory of Everything is generic: it does absolutely nothing to nudge the biopic formula from its most tediously standard form. The only way this could feel more boilerplate is if it took place in the form of flashbacks immediately before Hawking was set to receive some kind of lifetime achievement award (and it does, in fact, end with such an event). Otherwise we have yet another difficult genius with yet another suffering wife, and the film's interest in said genius beyond "he's so important and famous!" could not possibly be more superficial. Its interest in said wife is even less: considering that the film was adapted by Anthony McCarten from the second of Jane Hawking's two memoirs about life with her ex-husband, it's downright befuddling that its version of Jane (played by Felicity Jones) is so marginalised at every turn, given no interiority whatsoever other than a generic Christianity to contrast with her husband's agnosticism, and treated more as the woman-shaped object who looks fretfully on as Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) strains and falls and has cutting insights into the structure of the universe. I have never been terribly bowled over by Jones before, but this doesn't even count: there are actresses in this world who could force the film to respect their act of character creation and insist on Jane as an important anchor for this movie, but there aren't more than two scenes in the entire movie that support that kind of work, and a great many that actively deny it.

And so we get a cheery tale of how one man can overcome physical limitations to achieve intellectual greatness, though The Theory of Everything, expansive title of no, has only very little interest in what Hawking's work actually means or implies. It is no more about science than Pollock was about painting or Julie & Julia was about cooking, and less than A Beautiful Mind was about mathematics. Stephen Hawking is interesting to the film solely as the emblem the filmmakers could hold up of an inspiring figure who just Wouldn't Give Up, not when he was given two years to live (50 years later and Hawking still with us, that estimate seems somewhat pessimistic), not when he... no, it's pretty much just the first thing. Among its other sins as a work of writing, The Theory of Everything seems to be of the opinion that radical scientific insight comes all at once and you get it right the first time, and so it's just down to being inspiring as you struggle against your deteriorating body to deliver those flawless pearls of cosmological wisdom.

The film oscillates between superficial treatments of science and corny moments of "you can do it!" kitten-hanging-from-a-branch bromides - among the latter I would include the desperately tawdry scene where Hawking imagines himself rising from his chair to pick up a woman's pen, while Jóhann Jóhannsson's music shamelessly soars and weeps on the soundtrack; the worst single thing in the film, especially coming hard as it does upon a mechanical "tell us all your thoughts on God" Q&A - and it serves primarily to reduce the work of an enormously important scientist and thinker to the background for a deeply uninteresting story about a marriage that the filmmakers can't persuade themselves or us to care about. Not while leaving Jane as such a bland stock type.

Compounding its flatness as a drama, it's pretty slackly made: director James Marsh, who really is so much better when he sticks to documentaries, relies on boxy frames throughout that make this feel like an unusually polished BBC production, while he and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme go all-in on a weird program of exaggerated color timing that leaves entire scenes feeling tinted - that blue bar where they met, that bright yellow day at Oxford when Stephen was fucking around not studying, things like that. It's like watching one of Steven Soderbergh's color-driven narratives from around the turn of the 2000s with all the discipline and purpose stripped out of it. Plus, everything is delicately faded out and softened, all of it look nostalgic and waxy, like a soap commercial about academics. There's cross-cutting that makes several obnoxious, obvious comparisons like the one where Stephen is just like another kid Jane has to take care of! or the one where Jane thinks about having an affair while Stephen is getting sick! And this is far preferable to the film's exhausting over-reliance on montages to gallop through its fuzzy chronology, a hacky trick that I'd though we had, as a culture, mocked out of existence.

Redmayne is pretty great, I have to give him that. It's perhaps an obvious part and he plays it obviously, but the physical mechanics of showing the progression of Hawking's ALS are mapped out with exacting precision, and it's an impressive work of corralling physical gimmickry into character building, if nothing else. It's not the best imaginable performance of Hawking that could be given (according to most who have seen it - I have not - it adds nothing that Benedict Cumberbatch didn't already do in the 2004 television movie Hawking), it's more than this rickety display of shallow humanism requires. Otherwise, there's barely anything here at all: nothing but the most uninspired, paint-by-numbers storytelling and filmmaking technique imaginable in a genre where those pitfalls gape more dangerously than in any other.