A couple of decades ago, when CG and digital animation was new and novel, there was a lot of speculation that the technology would put a lot of movie artisans out of work. Of course, the initial concern was for those who made their living in special effects, the men and women who created monsters and myths out of latex and the proper application of cinematic sleight of hand. But as the possibilities grew, and the potential widened, those who functioned as location scouts, art and set designers, and other onstage craftsman were also threatened, the idea being that a better, more detailed backdrop could be created in the computer. Oddly, outside of George Lucas and James Cameron, few have tried to make such a suggestion a reality. One unusual example is Conceiving Ada, a 1997 effort featuring Tilda Swinton as Ada Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace and "inventor" of the first computer programming language - more than a century before such a device would be invented. Unfortunately, on both an emotional and evocative level, the entire self-important effort implodes, with or without the motherboard made settings.
Emmy is a genius computer geek who is developing a means of creating intelligent avatars that can travel back in time and retrieve memories and other information from important individuals. Her main target is Ada Augusta Byron King, the daughter of the famed poet and a proto-feminist who used her limitless lust for knowledge to seduce and secure an amazing education in mathematics. From there, she worked with Charles Babbage on his famed "difference engine" before dying, suddenly, at the age of 36. Hoping to tap into her mind as well as the theories she used to create her computing language, Emmy develops an artificial creature that actually communicates with Ada, mixing DNA and direct contact in a way to preserve her legacy and personality. Of course, such overreaching science is not without its risks, and Emmy is pregnant, making her boyfriend and her mother more than a little nervous. Still she pushes on, hoping what she discovers will change the face of modern programming forever.
If pretension were a payday, Conceiving Ada would be the richest gazillionaire on the face of the planet. Like a film student's first foray into "serious" psychobabble, this undeniably haughty mess does little except test your patience. Even with Oscar winner Swinton as a main source of cinematic meaning, we still feel lost, uninvolved, and uninterested. A lot has to do with co-writer/director Lynn Hershman-Leeson's desire to turn everything into a flailing feminist manifesto. It's easy to see Ada's frustration. She's a woman locked into the paternalistic prison of Victorian England, unable to move beyond her predetermined place in the social pecking order. With her desire for knowledge and her inability to gain same without literally whoring herself out, her story has an inherent level of interest. But Emmy's predicament is laughable. She's a highly regarded scientist, winning prize after prize for her revolutionary theories. She is living with a man who gives uber-sensitive post-modern males an incredibly bad name, seeks sage advice from a skeletal Timothy Leary, and basically does whatever the Hell she wants. And yet, somehow, she feels a kinship with this subjugated and demoralized noble from the past? Huh?
Even worse, the computer language element is all pseudo-science speak. Some 13 years after the movie was made, many of the concepts tossed around sound like a grade schoolers idea of substantive science fiction. In between all the avatar/messenger meaninglessness, inside the flashback/forward falderal, we are supposed to see how the past and the present link up and reflect each other. When Swinton is onscreen, talking about Ada's life of social servitude, the movie shows potential. This is because the actress can make even the most mediocre concepts seem significant. During the finale, when Ada is on her deathbed and going over everything she failed to accomplish in her life, we are almost moved by the sentiments. Swinton, voice barely above a whisper, walks us through these last regrets in a manner the rest of the movie avoids like a dial-up web connection. It doesn't help that the rest of the cast is virtually non-existent, from a wholly out of place Karen Black to a lackluster leading turn from Francesca Faridany. More concerned with looking the part than playing it, her performance is all placidity and pert breasts.
Still, the biggest burden is borne out by Ms. Hershman-Leeson. For her, technology is a tool, a fever dream device meant to confuse more than guide. The premise is never adequately explained, the scenes of clarification mixed up with concerns over pre-natal care and preposterous interpersonal arguments. There is never a sense that Emmy and her boy toy are really in love, just in love with the idea of being in love with each other, and the scenes with Simms (Leary) are pointless in their headshot non-sequiturs. And yet our director just keeps tossing these inconsequential ideas together, hoping someone or something will hold them together. Ms. Swinton almost does, but not even an effigy as ephemeral and enigmatic as hers can grip us forever. Saddled with science no one cares about and an core concept that is about three decades behind the current times, Conceiving Ada would have been better served as a biopic about its subject. Even the desire to toy with technology would have worked better recreating the past than arguing for a flailing future.
Frankly, Conceiving Ada looks bad on DVD. The 1.85:1 letterboxed transfer is terrible. The colors are wonky and weird, the differences between the Swinton material and the rest of the movie an exercise in visual exasperation. Everything looks soft and obviously bluescreened. There is no sharpness, not crispness of detail or design. In fact, the film almost looks ported over from VHS, the lack of contrast and control reminiscent of that format's major flaws.
All score by the magnificent noise masters The Residents aside, the sound quality of this release is also mediocre. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mix muffles the dialogue, losing some of the key conversational moments in the process. Even worse, the background music is treated as an afterthought, often buried behind the blips and bops of fictional computing.
We are treated to a Q&A with Swinton and Hershman-Leeson which is enlightening, except its actually about another collaboration between the artists (something called Teknolust). Conceiving Ada is referenced, but not enough to make the 35 minute featurette worthwhile. Similarly, a four minute behind the scenes touches on the use of bluescreen, while the trailer is just as evasive in its final meaning.
Conceiving Ada is a noble attempt at merging the neo-political with the speculative to give insights into both positions. Sadly, neither feminism or the future of virtual reality are well served by this uninvolving mess. Earning a honest Skip It, you'd be better off reading copies of Mother Jones and Wired back to back than wasting your time with this pack of pretentious poses. Tilda Swinton has since proven an asset to any film she's in, bringing a mystery and allure than few actresses can manage. Sadly, even she can't save this high tech claptrap.