imitation game reviewThis Oscar season is full of biographical stories (biopics, as we call them in the biz), of people that you've probably heard of and some that you might not have. Hollywood loves a good true story, and Oscar voters love awarding performances that emulate real life in the most dramatic and heart-tugging fashion.

One of the stories you might not have known about is that of Alan Turing, the genius mathematician and cryptographer who helped the Allies break the famous German "Enigma code" (helping, at the very least, to help them win the European theater and saving countless lives in the process) and was later essentially killed by the British authorities for being a homosexual. This is the story being told in "The Imitation Game," a movie that is already open in select cities and will be expanding nationwide, inch by inch, in the weeks ahead. And if the story fo Turing wasn't compelling enough, keep in mind that Benedict Cumberbatch, everyone's favorite Sherlock Holmes/fire-breathing dragon/"Star Trek" villain, plays the tortured genius. Yeah. Somebody already cracked that code.

It's got all of the elements of a tasty biography -- war, triumph, tragedy, and historically appropriate costumes -- but does it resonate or fall flat?

1. It's Better Than 'The Theory of Everything'
In the battle of biographic films based on mathematician geniuses, journalists have pitted "The Imitation Game" against "Theory of Everything," the Stephen Hawking biopic that stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, against "The Imitation Game," in the end-of-the-year Oscar battle royale. Because, of course, only one film about a tortured genius is allowed to proceed through the gauntlet of critics' prizes, top 10 list, and eventual awards nominations. Just know that "The Imitation Game" is a much, much better movie. It's weirder, more intense, and ultimately more human. Just know, that if it comes down between which of the crazy mathematician movies to go see, choose "The Imitation Game."

2. Benedict Needs to Clear Off Some Space In His Trophy Room
It's hard not to imagine Benedict, either today or sometime in the near future, having an entire room at his home devoted to his many awards. (Yes, it's sort of like that weird scene in "Foxcatcher." Just let us have this.) Many of those awards will, undoubtedly, come from his work in "The Imitation Game," which is simply unimpeachable. He's guaranteed an Oscar nomination, and might eek out a win (it could easily come down to a bitter battle between him and Redmayne). But that doesn't matter, because his performance is so good -- he's both aloof and deeply plugged in, a humanist who can't stand being around other human beings. He's absolutely compelling to watch, and he's never, ever been this good before. Which might be the most telling thing of all.

3. You Never Really Know How the Machine Works
The machine that the group of specialized British scientists are working on for the whole of the movie, the Enigma-buster the Allies so desperately need, is dubbed Christopher by Turing (for reasons not made clear until the end of the movie -- and, no, we're not spoiling it here), is never properly explained. It looks like a giant old computer, HAL's grandfather or something, but besides a lot of people barking that it will "break the code" and some whizzing around, we're never really told what, exactly, it's doing in that giant room. Maybe our minds couldn't handle it. But maybe they could.

4. The Supporting Cast Is Top Notch
Yes, this is very clearly "The Benedict Cumberbatch Show" but he is surrounded by loads of amazingly talented people: Matthew Goode (in one of his best roles ever), Mark Strong, Charles Dance (from "Game of Thrones" y'all!), Rory Kinnear (who will be in the next Bond movie) -- they all put in truly winning performances that make the movie fuller and more enjoyable. Just because these roles aren't as showy doesn't mean they aren't as good.

5. Keira Knightley Is Amazing, as Always
For some reason, every time Keira Knightley is excellent, it kind of catches us off-guard, even though it happens pretty regularly. She is truly amazing in this movie, though, as Turing's brilliant colleague and, if not romantic interest, then plutonic soulmate. There's a moment with her towards the end of the movie that will make you well up a little bit. Her performance is curious, brittle, and sharp, although probably too subtle to merit much awards chatter.

6. It Could Have Been Gayer
"The Imitation Game" is rated PG-13. And since it is rated PG-13, that means that some of the dicier aspects of Turing's life, including the fact that he was basically tortured to death for being a homosexual, were tamed down considerably. But Turing's homosexuality was a huge part of his character, what made him such a tortured genius. The fact that "The Imitation Game" doesn't explore Turing's sexuality more means that it doesn't present as full a portrait of the guy's life, and it feels like the sections set during Turing's criminal processing weren't given enough heft.

7. Structurally, It Could Have Used Some Work
The movie's script (by the terrific Graham Moore) is structured somewhat like a puzzle, at least that's the idea, with the main thrust of the movie centered around Turing's World War II exploits, with the framing device of his criminalized sexuality, and flashbacks to his childhood. It's somewhat awkward in execution, especially with a spy subplot that seems too ridiculous to have been real and what appears to be stock footage from the actual war. Still, it's weirdness is largely a virtue and it's hard to fault a film for ambition.

8. This Will Make You Watch the Director's Earlier Work
"The Imitation Game" was directed by Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian director who studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He's made a few movies in Norway before making "The Imitation Game" but the only one that got much attention in America was "Headhunters," a thriller based on a novel by Jo Nesbo. It's really terrific and violent and funny and you should watch it now.

9. It's Pretty Short
Hey, for an Oscar movie (and biopic), 114 minutes is really short.

10. The Score Is One of the Best of the Year
The score, by the always-wonderful Alexandre Desplat, is easily noticeable as one of the best of the year, from the first few seconds you hear it. It's delicate but foreboding, seemingly everywhere but never oppressive or in-your-face. Desplat has had a terrific year but this is our favorite score of his.

The Imitation Game
Based on 49 critics

Alan Turing helps crack the Enigma Code, then is prosecuted in 1952 for homosexuality. Read More

categories Movies, Reviews