WARNING: Some spoilers below if you have not seen the film.
Seeing The Imitation Game was one of the strangest filmgoing experiences I have ever had. To be sure the film was beautiful, and it is not hard to see why so many loved it and recommend it so much. However I left the theater feeling nothing at all. I left empty. And at first I could not pinpoint exactly why.
You see I expected to leave the theater feeling any of a wide range of emotions–after all, I was familiar with Turing’s story going into the film. I expected to be angry at the injustices he faced. I expected to be sad to see him suffer. I expected to be elated when he overcame prejudice, and when he proved he was one of the greatest minds that humanity has ever laid claim to. I will admit I was at least smugly pleased with myself when I accurately predicted that “Heil Hitler” would have something to do with the breakthrough. But I still left empty.
Perhaps this was because the film did such a good job reminding me that the world does not care whether or not I am angry, or sad, or happy. The world–and yes, I’m aware I’m using that phrase somewhat too generally here–is not a person. As filled with emotion and affect as it is, the world as we see it in The Imitation Game is a game that operates according to a set of rules that exist above and beyond the feelings of the players. Yes, we see Turing (played of course by the incredibly talented Cumberbatch) feel. We see him be sad, we see him laugh, we see him feel fear. But none of these emotions amount to anything. Turing could have smiled through the entire film like a blissfully ignorant idiot and it wouldn’t have mattered. And if Turing’s emotions do not ultimately mean anything, why should mine?
So on a very basic level, The Imitation Game denied me my cathartic longings by rendering them ineffectual. I played the Imitation Game with Turing, but that’s all it was. An imitation. A spectre of something meaningful and real, one that disappeared when the game was over. And at the end I couldn’t feel. I was just empty.
On a larger scale, moreover, I could not shake the impression that the film itself was little more than an imitation. I mentioned earlier that Turing was one of the greatest minds humanity has ever laid claim to, and that act of claiming was embodied in this film. We, the viewers, find in this film the commodified version of Turing’s life–the story object that we can all look at and say, “ah, that’s Turing. What an unfortunate and inspirational story we have here.” Turing’s life becomes a tragedy that we can take ownership of, an act manifested in the note about Queen Elizabeth’s pardon at the end of the film. The pardon brings Turing back into the societal fold and recognizes his achievements, which is ultimately what we really care about. Would we have a film about Turing today if he hadn’t accomplished what he did? Of course not. All of the suffering, the feeling, the real, lived, human experience is secondary. That did not matter while he was alive, and it only matters now because it accentuates his achievements.
For Turing himself though–the real Turing, the one we’ve made an imitation of–this entire spectacle smacks of being far too little, far too late. This film does not validate his existence and experiences, and, to be fair, it never could. Such validation or justice is impossible now. But if the film cannot do these things, what can it do? Why is it here? To let us pat ourselves on the back for honoring a man long dead now? To look back on a time when things were even worse for queer individuals than they are now, and feel good about how far we’ve come? I find myself wondering how many filmgoers left the theater thinking what a brilliant, messed up guy that Turing was. Or worse yet, if there were some who still left thinking, “Well, that’s what a life of sin gets you.” And such ruminations are perfectly acceptable. After all, it’s not Turing’s life anymore. It’s the imitation of his life, now become our story. We’ve claimed it, and we’ll think of it what we will.
Perhaps all of this should have made me feel sad, but it didn’t. There was no sense feeling sad about any of it. These things were merely the effects of rules–the rules of the Imitation Game, both that of the film and (by extension) the world that the film points to. So I left the theater empty. And maybe that marks this film as a unique and brilliant piece of cinematic art–art that renders the viewer numb and unfeeling. However such art is rather difficult to praise; after all, how does one summon the feelings of praise from feeling nothing? The answer to that question might be quite as impossible as winning at the Imitation Game.
NOTE: The images included in this post do not belong to me. The first is a movie poster obtained through IMDB. The second is a picture of Turing found on Google Images.