Highly conceptual, intricately cerebral and ever- so-slightly pretentious, "Conceiving Ada" is a semi-science fictionsemi-biography of Ada Byron King, the daughter of amorous poet Lord Byronand the great-grandmother of the digital age.
The picture is directed by Bay Area multimedia artist LynnHershman Leeson and stars the deeply affecting and resonatingly intellectualTilda Swinton ("Orlando") as Ada, a thinker so ahead of her timethat most of her Victorian contemporaries couldn't dream of wrapping theirheads around her innovative mathematics.
The film taps into her genius -- she invented what is generallyacknowledged as the first computer language for partner Charles Babbage'srevolutionary analytical engine -- and into her frustration with Victorianconvention through a modern protagonist, a passionate computer prodigynamed Emmy (Francesca Faridany).
An insomniac programmer on the verge of creating a limitedform of artificial life, Emmy spends restless nights obsessing over Adaand tinkering with computerized life forms. Encouraged by surreal videoconferences with her mentor (played by an ailing Timothy Leary), her breakthroughcomes in the form of a digital wormhole that reaches back through historywithin her computer to interface with Ada's memory, and by extension Adaherself, in a world that is half Victorian reality and half cyberspace.
Through computer-generated sets in Ada's semi-syntheticdomain and deeply metaphysical performances from Swinton and Faridany,"Conceiving Ada" marries an engrossing and ambitious parableabout science and emotion into what under other circumstances might havebeen a hokey storyline. It's easy to imagine this kind of plot dumbed downconsiderably and airing on the SciFi Channel with a more accessible scientificicon like Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin at its axis.
But this is pure art house fare -- an abstract, almostelegant rumination on feminism, technology, genetics and the mechanicsof memory that is often pure intellectualism, given passion and consciousnessby these two women who, driven by their mutual devotion to science, collaborateand commiserate through this virtual umbilical cord that ties them together.
One must swallow the imperfect concept to be swept intothe story, otherwise some moments become almost laughable. "Find MaryShelley," Faridany types in her computer and -- zap! -- this temporalsearch engine pops up a scene of Ada with Shelley, who was a friend inreal life. If only Yahoo! was this easy.
But ultimately Leeson's creative vision circumnavigatesthe narrative shortcomings, actually turning some of the movie's sci-fiabsurdities into challenging postulations of scientific possibility.
Run time: 85 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th February 1999
Distributed by: Hotwire Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Fresh: 9 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 4.6 / 10
Director: Lynn Hershman-Leeson