The moment when The Imitation Game reveals itself as a typical middlebrow mediocrity is not the moment when one tragic child tells another tragic child that, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of that do the things no one can imagine.” The moment is when, at precisely the time dictated by a screenwriting manual and with all the soul of The Imitation Game’s clunky code-breaking machine, that same tragic child, now a tragic adult, repeats that line to another adult.
That machine – ahistorically named “Christopher” to ensure your heartstrings are not merely tugged but aggressively yanked back and forth until they surrender and snap – is important because it exists to crack the Nazi code, a code a band of merely-quite-smart mathematicians have proven unable to crack even though good British boys are dying. So Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is brought in to take the case, using math-magic to show those darn Nazis a thing or two about freedom, all the while an anvil labelled TRAGIC IRONY dangles by a thread over his head.
Alan Turing is smart, you see, just so darn smart. We know this because he and other characters say it frequently, not because we see Alan Turing doing anything terribly smart. Mostly he acts like a specific kind of jerk, a Hollywood Asperger’s jerk that is supposed to make the audience tsk-tsk at other characters who don’t understand him while he says things like, “I don’t understand people.” Turing’s placement on the autism spectrum, like every other fact and event depicted by The Imitation Game, can’t possibly be allowed to be something messy, complex, or difficult-to-resolve. There’s a rigid, suffocating formula that demands attention.
Rigid, suffocating formula is all there is to The Imitation Game, who ensures that the female love interest of its gay protagonist gets vastly more screen time than his male love interest, because audiences love Keira Knightley. Rigid, suffocating formula ensures all kinds of head-throbbingly obvious spy-vs-spy shenanigans, and that only Alan Turing is smart enough to figure out what’s going on, but laboriously explain his method to his colleagues and, by extension, us, in every damn scene. Rigid, suffocating formula ensures that we see the same five shots of the Battle of Britain that we saw in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, The King’s Speech, and every other movie designed to impress Americans with British accents and Nazi villains. Rigid, suffocating formula ensures that Turing’s childhood explains everything (just like the key to an encrypted code, whoa). Rigid, suffocating formula ensures that every detail of Turing’s life was pored over by a pit crew, ready to chisel, inflate, reshape, and spit-shine everything until it became the same thing as every other damn thing that we’ve seen already. Amazingly, The Imitation Game doesn’t pass the Turing Test.
The thing about The Imitation Game isn’t that it’s mediocre; it’s that it’s insulting. The Imitation Game is insulting to the causes of gay rights and feminism by association. It is insulting to history, but perhaps no more than any other similar mediocrity, though the producers’ scramble to apologize to the descendents of every person portrayed in the movie in anything but a glimmering light is hilariously spineless. It’s insulting to its cast, certainly, but where money and recognition are concerned good audiences won’t begrudge good actors from the work of career-building. For all its noise about the injustice of oppressing gay men, it never dares show a gay kiss, a decade after Brokeback Mountain; for all its noise about the injustice of oppressing women, it fails the Bechdel test. The score is insulting: Alexandre Desplat, who should know better than this, descends into pure tawdry weepy piano sads. The cinematography is unimaginative, the voiceover is pandering, and the dialogue is terrible. The most insulting part of the film, though, is the clear-as-day belief on the part of the Weinsteins (who produced the film) that there’s no way anyone watching this movie could possibly understand the ideas that made Turing such a momentous figure in the intellectual and technological history of the 20th century, and that furthermore any attempt to actually depict or explain any of these ideas would only serve to bore, confuse, or repel us. Turing spends a boggling amount of time on screen telling the idiots that there’s simply no way they could understand his ideas and their genius; in effect, he’s telling us that, too. Not only does The Imitation Game not pass the Turing Test, it doesn’t think you can, either.
The Imitation Game is a movie about the importance of embracing difference that is relentlessly similar to middlebrow convention in every conceivable way. At the very least, it avoids the obvious dig at its name by being a shameless Oscar-bait biopic whose subject is too obscure for pure celebrity imitation to be the hook; nevertheless, it is a shameless Oscar biopic, and that saving grace isn’t graceful and saves nothing. Cumberbatch is good in a wholly unremarkable way, just the like the rest of the cast (who should have more shame). Among the more embarrassing revelations in the recent spill of documents from Sony Pictures was a series of PowerPoint presentations whose crimes against aesthetics and design pale against what they reveal about the vacuous, condescending drivel that drives the modern film industry. I beseech you to go take a look at some of those slides rather than bother yourself with this movie; both experiences will teach you the same lesson, but at least the slides save you ten bucks and two hours.