Wednesday 20 August 2014

The Turing Love Affair (2010)

Director: Natasha Kermani
Stars: Stefanie Woodburn, Brandon Wardell, Randy Spence and Grayson Brannen
This film was an official selection at the 7th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
I wanted to like The Turing Love Affair a lot more than I found myself able to, because it looks gorgeous and it's unashamedly geeky. Unfortunately the story it finds to unfold in this gorgeous and unashamedly geeky environment is far too weak to stand up to much attention, which is a real shame. For those who have no idea what the title means, Alan Turing was a British mathematician who contributed so strongly to the field of computer science that he's been called 'the father of artificial intelligence'. During World War II, his work to break the codes of the German navy prompted no less a name than Winston Churchill to claim that he 'made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory'. Sadly, his reward for his service was to be chemically castrated in 1952 after successful prosecution for being gay. He committed suicide two years later. He's in the title because of his Turing test, which defined the standard for a machine to be considered intelligent if a human, through conversation, couldn't distinguish it from another human.

As the title suggests, we're presented with not merely a conversation between a human and a machine, but a conversation that moves into far more emotional territory. The human is Harry Zelazny, probably a portmanteau of homages to science fiction writers Harry Harrison and Roger Zelazny. He's a musician, an important one if the magazine cover mounted onto the wall in his room at the Elizabeth Space Station is anything to go by. It calls him the 'new face of modern music.' Why he's staying on the Elizabeth we have no idea, but it's halfway between the inner system and the outer colonies, placing us firmly in both the future and the middle of nowhere. Perhaps he's trying to escape something, usually the case in the films noir that provide the look and feel of the piece. This is presented in colour, but a sepia-toned colour that often reminds of Blade Runner, itself a science fiction neo-noir. We quickly discover that Zelazny won't be leaving the Elizabeth, not ever, because someone or something has broken his neck in two places.

So in come the homicide investigators, Det Anya Greenwood and Dr Sam Tarkov, to ask questions of what seems to be the only suspect, Charlotte CA110, the stewardess responsible for taking care of Zelazny on the Elizabeth. She's a cyborg, one of 25 that maintain the station, and it's pretty obvious that she's not a human being. She looks great, but she moves too deliberately and has an odd melodic but artificial voice. There's a lot that's derivative in the story, which is an archetypal one for science fiction literature, so the Lije Baley stories of Isaac Asimov, detective tales set in a world where humans and robots are very close to being indistinguishable, leap as quickly to mind as reference points as does the Voight-Kampff test that Deckard and his colleagues administer in Blade Runner to delineate humans from replicants, itself based on a science fiction novel, Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Whatever we call the test, it's a Turing test, though here there's another level: has the known cyborg found consciousness?
And here the script has us watch two stories unfold. In flashback, we watch Charlotte CA110 talk with the man she's tasked to steward, conversation that goes far beyond what might be expected for her job. She listens to him play his music, which may be part of why she appears to fall for him in ways a cyborg isn't supposed to be able to do. This flashback shows us what led up to Zelazny's murder, while in the present, the Nucorp interrogators try to figure it out by questioning the stewardess. I find it admirable that writer Natasha Kermani, who also directed, aimed to tell a human story as well as the one more overtly rooted in science fiction, because Greenwood and Tarkov approach the interrogation very differently, something that builds them as characters and a dynamic between them. There's an important story hiding in here about the origins of consciousness, one important enough to frame the film and provide its title, but its actual exploration is surprisingly only hinted at.

I'm not calling for this to be a feature, but it deserves to be a much longer short film as fifteen minutes is not enough to do it justice. While Kermani started down all the right roads, none of them get to where she aims to reach, leaving us dazzled by the visuals but frustrated by the script. It's almost a Hollywood trope that time honoured ideas be trumped by the look and feel of a film, but this doesn't feel like Hollywood, it just feels incomplete. I'll happily praise a host of crew members for their contributions to the visuals: Seth Hagenstein for his cinematography which plays very nicely with angles and lighting; Raquel Cedar for her production design, as she nails both the sterility of the space station and a film noir atmosphere; Brendan Bellomo and hs visual effects team, an International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival regular with Bohemibot and Sol also under his belt; even Lauren Bates Jaffe for her make up work. If we could watch this in a half hour version, perhaps Kermani's script could explore enough to catch up to their standards.

The Turing Love Affair can be watched for free on Vimeo.

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