*** stars 85 minutes | Rated: R
Various play dates, February, 1999
Directed by Lynn Hershman-Leeson

Starring Tilda Swinton, Francesca Faridany, Timothy Leary, Karen Black, John O'Keefe, J.D.Wolfe & John Perry Barlow

Great-grandmother of computer age, Ada Byron King brought to life in scientist's cyber-experiment

By Rob Blackwelder

Highly conceptual, intricately cerebral and ever- so- slightly pretentious, "Conceiving Ada" is a semi-science fiction semi-biography of Ada Byron King, the daughter of amorous poet Lord Byron and the great-grandmother of the digital age.

The picture is directed by Bay Area multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson and stars the deeply affecting and resonatingly intellectual Tilda Swinton ("Orlando") as Ada, a thinker so ahead of her time that most of her Victorian contemporaries couldn't dream of wrapping their heads around her innovative mathematics.

The film taps into her genius -- she invented what is generally acknowledged as the first computer language for partner Charles Babbage's revolutionary analytical engine -- and into her frustration with Victorian convention through a modern protagonist, a passionate computer prodigy named Emmy (Francesca Faridany).

An insomniac programmer on the verge of creating a limited form of artificial life, Emmy spends restless nights obsessing over Ada and tinkering with computerized life forms. Encouraged by surreal video conferences with her mentor (played by an ailing Timothy Leary), her breakthrough comes in the form of a digital wormhole that reaches back through history within her computer to interface with Ada's memory, and by extension Ada herself, in a world that is half Victorian reality and half cyberspace.

Through computer-generated sets in Ada's semi-synthetic domain and deeply metaphysical performances from Swinton and Faridany, "Conceiving Ada" marries an engrossing and ambitious parable about science and emotion into what under other circumstances might have been a hokey storyline. It's easy to imagine this kind of plot dumbed down considerably and airing on the SciFi Channel with a more accessible scientific icon like Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin at its axis.

But this is pure art house fare -- an abstract, almost elegant rumination on feminism, technology, genetics and the mechanics of memory that is often pure intellectualism, given passion and consciousness by these two women who, driven by their mutual devotion to science, collaborate and commiserate through this virtual umbilical cord that ties them together.

One must swallow the imperfect concept to be swept into the story, otherwise some moments become almost laughable. "Find Mary Shelley," Faridany types in her computer and -- zap! -- this temporal search engine pops up a scene of Ada with Shelley, who was a friend in real life. If only Yahoo! was this easy.

But ultimately Leeson's creative vision circumnavigates the narrative shortcomings, actually turning some of the movie's sci-fi absurdities into challenging postulations of scientific possibility.


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