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Case Number 19776: Small Claims Court

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Conceiving Ada

MicroCinema // 1997 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // September 28th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge William Lee's review is also available on punch card.

Editor's Note

Our review of Conceiving Ada, published October 10th, 2000, is also available.

The Charge

Charles Babbage: "You are a mother, a wife. Ada, you should know your place."
Ada Lovelace: [she slaps him] "My place is in history."

The Case

If women created computers, instead of machines that crunch data and store infinite amounts of our culture's trivia, would we have an electronic best friend to listen to and talk to us whenever we need a desktop hug? That probably makes me sound like a cretin but what would you think of me if I bought into the fantasy of Conceiving Ada? Dressed up as feminist science fiction, the film is a limp tale that doesn't do justice to the real life 19th century figure Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, regarded as the world's first computer programmer.

Emmy Coer (Francesca Faridany) is a computer scientist in the 1990s. That was a time when a new technology called virtual reality was expected to change everything. Emmy has a virtual dog that talks to her and an animated bird that fetches data for her from the depths of cyberspace. Both are helpful in her research into the life of Ada Lovelace (Tilda Swinton, The Deep End). Using an incredibly clean photograph of the 19th century woman, Emmy does something involving her own DNA genetic code and other computer magic—perhaps programming during a lightning storm wearing a bra over her head—to bring Ada almost to life. She unlocks a treasure trove of video clips that show Ada's story on her computer in vivid detail just like a movie. Emmy can even talk with Ada, leading her to learn that her experience isn't so different from Ada's and maybe she can save her heroine from being lost to history.

The best examples of science fiction, even at its most fanciful, are grounded in reality. The technology of the future needs to be modeled on something that we recognize if we're to believe in it. If it's completely divorced from our reality, it should at least have an understandable logic within its own world. The contemporary setting of Emmy's story is meant to be our reference point to Conceiving Ada but the movie's dated and naïve depiction of computer technology is a huge obstacle to taking the story seriously. I've watched sci-fi that has me believing in artificial intelligence and talking computers much more advanced than we see in real life. Yet, I just couldn't take seriously what Emmy conjures up in this movie. It's possible that director and co-writer Lynn Hershman Leeson was aiming to represent computers in a completely fantastical manner but I did not see any evidence that her film was aware of its silliness. Rather, I believe the story is an artifact of the 1990s zeitgeist that regarded the promise of virtual reality with boundless optimism. Today, seeing what the filmmakers envisioned then, it's pretty ripe for ridicule and that makes it very difficult to take the story seriously.

Tilda Swinton is one of the most daring actresses of her generation and she does what she can to make Ada a real flesh and blood character. A restless thinker, Ada uses her feminine charms to further her intellectual pursuits. That is, she has affairs with the prominent thinking men of her time so she can learn their ideas. Women's advancement in the arts and sciences was restricted in that era and Ada resorts to throwing books and hitting her own head when she's frustrated. Swinton doesn't do the hysterical female bit too well because she looks smarter and more self-controlled than the script allows.

For overreactions, it's hard to top an early scene with Emmy. Without so much as a pause after an argument with her boyfriend, Emmy cuts off her hair. That's about the most exciting thing this lifeless protagonist does in the movie. Her research mainly consists of watching the vignettes of Ada's life play on her computer screen. She also sifts through videotaped comments that arrive from her academic colleagues. One of them is played by an incoherent Timothy Leary whose clip has the appeal of a drunk breathing in your face. What little momentum there is in the story grinds to a halt whenever the action returns to the contemporary setting. A straightforward historical drama about the Countess might have been more satisfying but a better script would still be needed.

About ten years ago, Winstar released Conceiving Ada on a technically disappointing DVD. The latest release from Microcinema doesn't make any improvements. The letterboxed picture is very soft with image quality resembling a VHS recording. Colors are overly warm. It's subtle and more noticeable in the dark areas of the frame, but a pattern of diagonal lines constantly run across the image. The stereo audio is adequate.

The biggest of the few supplemental materials is a Q&A session with Lynn Hershman Leeson and Tilda Swinton, filmed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in 2009. However, the 35-minute interview is actually about Teknolust, their follow-up to this film. The enthusiastic host of the chat session really piles on the compliments and refers to Conceiving Ada as a cult classic. Also on the disc are the trailer and a making-of featurette (4:00) that talks about the production's use of blue screen technology. They claim this is the first movie to use virtual sets—more specifically, the actors were placed in three-dimensional sets created on a computer. I don't know how technically true that is—for the record, Radioland Murders was released in 1994—but it's a bold statement considering the state of the art in special effects in 1997.

Conceiving Ada never manages to come to life. The story lacks any urgency and the characters don't feel real. The technological gimmick that drives the movie is unconvincing. At the time of this writing, IMDb lists a fourth movie pairing Swinton with director Leeson. I enjoy the majority of Swinton's work and I believe she is very selective about what roles she takes and with whom she works. Obviously, she sees something in Leeson's vision that speaks to her. I hate to classify movies along gender lines but it is possible that I'm just not the audience for this director's work.

The Verdict

This ill-conceived attempt at feminist sci-fi is guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 50

Perp Profile

Studio: MicroCinema
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Bad
• Drama
• Fantasy
• Science Fiction

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurette
• Q&A
• Trailer


• IMDb

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