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Conceiving Ada suffers from a plausibility gap so great it gets in the way of the film. It is like those know-nothing movies that have some nerdy kid from down the block casually hacking into the Pentagon from his/her Game Boy. Only if the audience is coming from the far side of the keyboard where computers are magic and a mystery does that kind of gee-wiz know-how seem believable enough to carry the story along.

Out of Their League

1997 film still not clicking in 2010
1997 film still not clicking in 2010

A talented woman programmer, Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany), makes contact across time with the brilliant Ada Lovelace (Tilda Swinton), the 19th Century Englishwoman credited with writing the first computer program. Emmy is a sort of 1997 American version of Lisbeth Salander, the woman hacker from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I think we are meant to contrast Emmy’s modern freedom with Ada’s constrained Victorian-era life. Emmy comes off as a bit dull especially when put up next to Ada who is quite a character.

Making a cameo appearance is Timothy Leary as Emmy’s ethereal mentor. His only presence is on a giant screen — rather like the Great and Powerful Oz — and he is one of the films high points. The plausibility index of Leary’s psychobabble is so high, you can’t be sure if what he is saying is meaningful or not. Now that’s the way I like my science fiction.

Unfortunately for the rest of the actors in the film, Swinton is out of their league (with the exception being the small part Karen Black plays as Ada’s creepy mother). Swinton comes to the film in the same way an NFL pro would appear at a Pop Warner ball game. It’s not that the other actors are particularly bad, it’s just that Swinton is just so much better. Her performance as Ada Lovelace is lost in the film (or it makes the film — you choose).

Swinton as Ada shines when she begs the disembodied voice from the future to come and save her. This for me was the most dramatic moment of the film and yet not that much is made of it, which is odd because at the end of the film, we see that saving Ada was the whole point of the exercise.

Upgrade Cycle

Most of the special effects are not that attractive. It’s technically cool that Conceiving Ada was shot entirely with green screen backgrounds (not bad for 1997). The bad news is that they are pretty mundane backgrounds. The virtual bird and dog are particularly awkward, and at times I felt like I was watching a homemade version of the original Tron.

This demonstrates the danger of using technology as a filmmaking device. Unless it’s better than anything you’ve ever seen before, it becomes more of a distraction than an advantage. The hardware dates the film too like an out-of-date hairstyle or a tie that’s too wide. There is hope because that which appears as embarrassingly lame today may morph into being quaint tomorrow. We’ll see.

The worst problem is that the film is tone deaf to computer culture. It can make you cringe the same way as when the hero of a bad space opera says she’s going to be gone for a “light year.”

Feminist Sci-Fi

Conceiving Ada ‘s lack of credibility is unfortunate because once you scrape off the cruft, there are some interesting ideas in the film. There is the novelty of the new forms computational tools can create. There is the historical fact of Ada Lovelace. There is the progress we’ve made as a society. There are the new problems modern women face with the old fashioned reality of child bearing. I think that director Lynn Hershman Leeson has so much to say about all of it that little gets said at all.

Conceiving Ada is being pitched as Feminist Sci-Fi... well OK, if they say so. I had the sense that Leeson is running down the List of Female Grievances... and I suppose somebody has to do it... but at the same time it’s a drag on the story. Or rather, it is another story. The notion of rescuing Ada by “replicating her DNA” is buried in a lot of other mundane activities like whether smoking vegetable cigarettes will be bad for Emmy’s baby. And then there is the A.I. dog. I’m not sure where that fits in... A demonstration of Emmy’s computing chops?... Comic relief?

If you choose to see Conceiving Ada as Feminist Sci-Fi then of course all bets are off and anything goes. But that should be neither an excuse nor explanation for the film’s faults. To Leeson’s credit, she makes Emmy the jerk and her husband the responsible adult. And neither Emmy nor Ada is a saint, so you won’t find me accusing Leeson of misandry. But if it’s strong Sci-Fi women you want, look to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in any of the Alien films in general and the third one in particular.

It may be that Conceiving Ada is, like Ada Lovelace herself, so far out of its context that its significance won’t be apparent for years to come. It is an odd little film that has taken a long time to get to DVD and may yet have a brighter future. Again, we’ll see.

DVD Extras

There is a nice little video of a 2009 post-screening discussion by Leeson and Swinton. The film viewed was Teknolust (2002) but as it was the second part of Leeson’s proposed Millennial Trilogy and Conceiving Ada is the first part, it pertains to both films.

The Making of Conceiving Ada takes a look at the then-very-novel technique of synthetic backgrounds.

How to Use This DVD

This film is best seen in a historical context — with Ada Lovelace as a 19th century figure and as a sample of the curious and breathless enthusiasm for computers in the late 20th century.