Conceiving Ada (1997) poster

Conceiving Ada (1997)


USA/Germany. 1997.


Director/Virtual Set Production Design – Lynn Hershman Leeson, Screenplay – Lynn Hershman Leeson & Eileen Jones, Producers – Lynn Hershman Leeson & Henry S. Rosenthal, Photography – Hiro Narita, Photography (Virtual Sets) – Bill Zarchy, Music – The Residents, Digital Visual Effects – digital phenomena inc (Supervisor– Jamie Clay), Godsdog Animation – XAOS Inc, Mechanical Bird Design – Laurel Roth. Production Company – ZDF-Arte/Hotwire Productions/Complex Corporation.


Tilda Swinton (Ada Byron King), Francesca Faridany (Emmy Coer), John O’Keefe (Charles Babbage), John Perry Barlowe (John Crosse), Timothy Leary (Sims), Karen Black (Lady Byron/Mother Coer)


In 1993, computer researcher Emmy Coer perfects a search program that can gather the remnants of past events. She is fascinated with Ada Byron King, the daughter of Lord Byron, who in the 1850s devised plans for the world’s first working computer although never built it. At first, Emmy merely uses the program to watch Ada’s struggles. However, she then decides to build Ada a virtual body so that she can communicate with her.

Conceiving Ada is an indie release that is based on the life of Ada Byron (1815-52), the real-life daughter of writer/poet Lord Byron who constructed plans for a primitive analog computer with Charles Babbage (who took most of the credit for it). Director/co-writer/co-producer Lynn Hershman Leeson is a photographer/filmmaker who has devoted a number of other works to the questions of feminism and cybernetic identity. It is clear here that Leeson has set out to make a film with a feminist mission, of giving some time to this seldom recognised figure from the very dawn of the Computer Age.

Alas, despite Lynn Hershman Leeson’s earnest intentions, Conceiving Ada is a hopelessly pretentious mess. First of all the film should have been a straight biopic of Ada Byron – something that would have been an interesting idea (even if it would not have been written up here). However, Leeson has created a framing device for the biographical drama about a computer science researcher in the present creating a virtual body for Ada whereby she watches the details of Ada’s life and Ada eventually comes to talk to her.

It is a loopy idea that smacks more of New Age mysticism than it does of computer science. In creating a ‘program’ that goes and searches through time and space and gathers ‘information’, Leeson makes no difference between information in the sense of events that happened in the past and information as in the binary storage of data in a computer. Leeson takes such nonsense far too seriously – one thinks that if you are going to make a film about the creator of the computer then you could at least do it justice by knowing something about computers.

Ada Byron King (Tilda Swnton) recreated in cyberspace in Conceiving Ada (1997)
Ada Byron King (Tilda Swnton) recreated in cyberspace

Even stripped of its science-fiction device, one tends to think that the material as presented here would not have made a very interesting biopic anyway. The film is made on a B budget and Leeson mistakes the description of dull biographical detail for making a subject’s life dramatically interesting. The film also features an appearance from a 76-year-old Timothy Leary – in fact, Leary died before the film was even released. On screen, Leary looks sadly aged. Moreover, he is a non-actor and seems to be rambling without much idea of what he is meant to be saying.

Lynn Hershman Leeson returned to science-fiction with her next film Teknolust (2002), also starring Tilda Swinton as a scientist who creates several clones of herself. She had earlier made a couple of other films with science-fiction sounding titles with Virtual Love (1995) and Seduction of a Cyborg (1995), although nothing is known about these. Since 2002, she has abandoned genre material and concentrated on documentaries. Elsewhere, she is a celebrated exhibition and performance artist.

Trailer here

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