Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Geek Shall Inherit The Earth: The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, in The Imitation Game

Filmgoers, like gamers, are natural puzzle-solvers – we like to try and stay one step ahead of a mystery, or piece together a disjointed narrative, or guess at a film’s ending before it arrives. There isn’t much to unravel in The Imitation Game, a film which depicts the life of mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his attempts to crack the German Enigma code at the secret Bletchley Park facility in World War II, but the way the film positions society’s smartest (and most socially awkward) members as the world’s last hope against the Nazi menace is almost as much a love letter to geeky hobbyism as it is a biopic of the world’s first computer scientist. The film isn’t complex enough to be a puzzle unto itself, but so many puzzles abound for the characters to solve – crossword and code-message alike – that it feels like a celebration of how using brains, and not brawn, is often what wins a global war.
Cumberbatch resists the temptation to make Turing (who in this cinematic imagining probably falls somewhere on the high-functioning autism/Asperger’s spectrum, although this is never explicity stated) an automaton or a caricature. His Turing is a person of powerful, broiling emotion that rarely makes its way to the surface, less of a Sheldon or Sherlock and more of a man struggling to reconcile the world he sees with the one that really exists. There is a weirdly charming chemistry between the self-professed "odd duck" Turing and the misfit Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who is especially endearing because she was cast against type. Knightley normally plays feisty ingenues or Manic Pixie Dream Girls, and she makes Joan less of the romantic interest you might expect and more of a functional foil for the socially-stunted Turing, which is far more engaging to watch. Mark Strong and Charles Dance (better known as the brilliantly brutal scion of House Lannister) turn in the most interesting supporting roles, as the figureheads of British government who enable Turing to succeed while doubting his ability to do so.

Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch
Bolstered by an excellent Alexandre Desplat score – who continues to prove his versatility with the paranoid urgency of his work on Godzilla and now the cerebral tinkering of Game – the emotional pacing of Turing’s journey is centered around how his brilliance, and the personal predilections that come with it, fail to fit into British society’s predetermined social infrastructure. The titular “imitation game” functions as both a description of the way computational machines simulate human brain activity, and the way Turing himself attempts to simulate normal human behaviour. His characterization is strongly tied to the relationship between man and machine, especially because of his particular bond with the machine he builds to help crack Enigma, which he pointedly names “Christopher”. In one of the film’s stronger scenes, Turing equates his government’s rejection of his homosexuality to the difference between a human brain and a digital one, reasoning that if we freely accept aberrations in human behaviour (“You cry at sad films, I like the colour green. You like ice cream, I am allergic to pollen”), then the difference between how a machine thinks and how a person thinks is similarly insignificant. Thankfully Turing’s homosexuality is presented in a restrained manner, and not sensationalized – there are no ham-fisted scenes in which we see him kiss other men or engage in sexual acts – although it does dominate the emotional arc of the last two thirds of the film, as he is pursued by police and charged with gross indecency under British law.

Game makes efficient Oscar bait thanks to this powerful performance by Cumberbatch (and his amazingly well-cast younger self, played by Alex Lawther, who is so in tune with Cumberbatch’s performance that I think the two actors must have worked together to make their speech patterns and mannerisms match). But despite the talent of its lead actors, the film blazes no new trails, with almost the same story points as an underdog sports movie. Moreover, it’s troublingly inaccurate and artificially dramatized, as all prestige biopics are. The inclusion of storylines about Soviet spy infiltration into Bletchley Park, including aspersions cast on the loyalty of Turing himself, are especially disconcerting. They’re hollow and superfluous attempts at further dramatization of an already interesting story, and don’t belong in a film that seeks to give Turing the credit he richly deserves.

Thankfully, though, Game rises above the other entries in the biopic genre from earlier in the year, especially The Theory of Everything. Game is not as maudlin or trite as Theory, and the actors here save the day while in Theory even a committed performance from Eddie Redmayne couldn't salvage the film’s shoddy direction and rubber-stamp script. Game connects the man's work with his life and makes a point to show the way his scientific achievements affect both his self-worth and his personal relationships. That said, I still would have been interested to hear Turing describe the inner mechanical workings of “Christopher” and how “he” operates, being that the infinitely complex computers we all carry in our pockets were partially born from “his” bloodline. Heaven forbid they put some technical detail in a movie about mathematicians and the birth of computer science – they don’t want their audience falling asleep on them, after all.

While Game struggles to balance its myriad themes – unjust sexual persecution, national loyalty, personal empathy, geekdom as strength – a crackerjack historical drama is playing out in the background. As it turns out, deciphering Enigma is just the first of many problems Turing has to solve, and the excitement of his story can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. The film’s emotional core remains solid, however, and that means that while it’s as occasionally messy as the frantic scribbled blueprints tacked to Turing’s wall, it’s also an ultimately satisfying flick.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

No comments:

Post a Comment