Many stories question the origin, and thereby classification, of an intelligent consciousness. Where does the path to consciousness begin and where does it end? Spiraling into debates of robotics where a future like Blade Runner and A.I. is a headline away, non-human intelligent life has grown into a key concern of philosophers and sci-fi writers alike. One such philosopher, although he certainly never identified himself that way, was British spy Alan Turing, a name most recognized by association to the turing machine, a code breaking mechanism used in World War II. Turing’s remarkable machine, more a twice removed distant relative than great great grandaddy to the current computer, gave him insight into the possibilities of consciousness. His hugely influential paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” argues the differences between computer intelligence and human intelligence may be slight.
I’m detailing this apparent tangent because The Imitation Game’s writer, Graham Moore, centers the debate of artificial intelligence as a key concern in this truish telling of Turing’s life, but, in a stroke of inspiration, he uses it as metaphor for Turing himself. Turing’s inability to understand other people, and very possibly himself, is as core to The Imitation Game as the immaculately staged period setting. Just as computers have begun to imitate us, Turing, the film posits, may have done just the same for the sake of fitting in. The philosophical conceit is there—and directly discussed by Turing—but it’s a rare film that uses one compelling idea to help us understand something else, and it gives The Imitation Game an excellent internal cohesion that lets a lot of ideas gently broil together.
The Imitation Game, first and foremost, is a splendidly entertaining spy movie, with all the expected antics you’d expect following a clandestine bunch of Brits. Headhunters director Morten Tyldum has the flair to make it all a rollicking good time, with laughs, thrills, and heart to spare. Alan Turing was a top code breaker based in London during World War II, hired as a spy to distill Nazi codes under pretenses too complex to explain here. He was also gay, an attribute the film doesn’t politicize but doesn’t gloss over either. A grumpy commander with the imposing name Alastair Denniston, played with appropriate intimidation by Charles Dance, throws Turing in a mish mash gang of semi-geniuses. Turing, offended and confused how the entirety of the British government wouldn’t trust a sole man to save World War II, offends his co-code breakers in turn. This portrait of Turing, as written and as played by the ever-wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch, has the marks of autism and Asperger’s. He doesn’t get along with others, relying instead on Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) to teach him the bonuses of charm. If successful, Turing and his crew of handsome fellows (really: Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, and Matthew Beard) can turn the tide of World War II and save millions of lives.
Moore’s script finds clever ways to dramatize the World War II conflict. Sure, we cut to the expected scenes of U-Boats, warplanes, and bombs falling from the sky, but the script keeps conflict personal. In one of the tensest moments, just as the team cracked a Nazi code, they realize they can stop a slaughter at sea. That is, until they realize saving innocents will “out” that they discovered a code breaking method, leaving them with a tightly wound moral dilemma made worse when realizing a codebreaker’s brother is on one of the boats. As much as it seems a standard telling of a not so standard story, it proves why these story staples worked to begin with. Manipulative and melodramatic aren’t the half of it, but it’s so engaging precisely because of, rather than despite, those qualities; The Imitation Game is a testimonial to how powerful Hollywood contrivance can be.
A stranger film than anyone’s given it credit for, Tyldum is merely proficient at streamlining complexity into a palatable product for the masses, finding touchstones of storytelling to communicate ideas. There’s the temporal acrobatics, flashing backwards and forwards between interrogation rooms, days in secondary school, ransacked apartments, and breaking Nazi codes. It’s a film with a polite form of originality, but it’s originality nonetheless, and too little credit has been given to skilled labor behind the camera and on the page.
Not forgetting who’s in front of the camera, Cumberbatch’s turn as the code-breaking philosopher is towering and full of feeling; you will cry. I did. The women next to me did. The men in the row in front of me did. Cumberbatch is playing Turing as Lisbeth Salander meets Sherlock, and you’ll see evidence of that cinematic shorthand. Genius can be inaccessible and cold, so by personifying Turing as a hyper-intelligent social misfit, we can understand him. It’s here the film finds its comedic heart, with Turing’s social befuddlement endearingly played for laughs. Cumberbatch has never been better, and it’s a surprisingly physically demanding role. We see the sheer exhaustion of emotion shown on the actor’s crumbling face, and we’re inclined to mirror his inner strife. It’s a heartbreaking movie with a heartbreaking performance, and Cumberbatch ought to win an Oscar for it. That’s to say nothing of Keira, who continues to do fine work and, with the right role, one imagines she’ll have her own statue in no time at all.
If he wasn’t already, composer Alexandre Desplat’s consistently high quality work— just look at 2014 alone for truly great scores in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, and now The Imitation Game—has effected him one of the premiere film composers in the world, someone who’s work I now look forward to with every new score. Cut from completely different cloths, Desplat bouncing from the percussive assault of Godzilla to the poignant strings of The Imitation Game seems like such a trick it ought to be the work of David Blaine. The score has curious similarities to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network, bearing the sounds of a mind busy at work. It has a uniquely propulsive energy: saccharine and sweetly sentimental, but also hints at a deeper darkness. Somehow, it’s modern and throwback at the same time, making it one of the very best scores this year.
The Imitation Game won’t appear on my top ten, simply because despite the story’s tragic underbelly (which I’ve strategically avoided discussing), it’s easy to mistake the film for a feel good movie. The script is broken down mostly into a series of AHA! moments that no measure of comedy or acting charm can stop from becoming repetitive. Despair and anguish are calculated purely for the cathartic release afterwards. It’s a formula so mechanically well-organized Turing himself might have developed the script’s inner code. Every moment is played for emotional highs, but barely scratches the surface of Turing’s true personhood. That’s just fine, though, and as a delivery device of a fascinating story told with romping fun and genuine emotion, it hits all the right notes.
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