The Early Posthumanist Biopic

The following article is taken from a final essay I wrote for a class. It has been edited down slightly but is for the film theorist and any other interested parties, so I have included the works I cite so that anyone who’s interested can read them and form their own thoughts! 

When thinking of a posthuman figure, the image most often called to mind is that of a cyborg- Robocop, Terminator, the humans hooked into the Matrix. To use the term “post-human” is to call to mind a cybernetic organism, a “hybrid of machine and organism” (Haraway 149) and imagine something almost apocalyptic, futuristic, even alien. But “the construction of the post-human does not require the subject to be a literal cyborg,” (Hayles 4), and the idea of posthumanism, that is to say, becoming something more than human, can be portrayed in many shapes and forms, particularly within cinema, and a chief example of this portrayal can be seen in the 2014 film The Imitation Game.


This film, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, tells the story of Alan Turing, a mathematical genius hired during World War II to break the Nazi code machine known as Enigma, a machine that is designed to be unbreakable. As a biographical piece, The Imitation Game likes to give its viewers the idea that it is an inspiring, ideological piece about the triumph of the Allies over the Nazis and the struggles of a brilliant man hindered by his own social shortcomings (and partially by his homosexual nature, but that is another story for another time). However, the film very carefully straddles the line between an ideological film and a posthumanist one, portraying Turning as an ambivalent posthumanist figure during a time period where many theorists say the interplay between informational patterns and material objects (the backbone of posthumanism) began.


To begin to understand Turing’s balance as a posthumanist figure, it must first be understood what a posthuman is. Katherine Hayles breaks it down into four parts: the privileging of informational patterns over material representation, the consideration of consciousness as the seat of human identity, thinking of the human body as the continuation of the thinking process rather than the cause of it, and (most importantly) thinking of a human being as something that can be seamlessly combined with intelligent machines (Hayles 3). Quite literally this means that posthumanism is a person or entity that exists in a state beyond that of a human. Most post-human subjects have evolved beyond simple human characteristics- since most posthuman subjects or cyborgs or machines, generally they are more evolved in intelligence and logic, where the natural way of thinking is more logical than emotional.

PicMonkey Collage
Examples of post humanism in films include Star Trek and The Matrix.

This sets the machines, the cyborgs, apart from the humans in terms that they are not limited by what normal humans are limited by; ethics, emotions, irrational behavior, fear. Haraway points out that “from the perspective of cyborgs, freed of the need to ground politics in ‘our’ privileged position of the oppression that incorporates all other dominations, the innocence of the merely violated, the ground of those closer to nature, we can see powerful possibilities” (Haraway 176). Alan Turing, in real life as well as in this biopic, is portrayed as this sort of man- freed from social politics (he points out several times, in deed if not in word, that the subtleties of conversation and tact are beyond him), he is able to delve into the heart of a situation without worrying about how he looks or acts about it. Even in moments that are meant to be emotional to most humans, his decisions are founded on logic and reasoning- during the film he proposes to Joan Clarke, a smart colleague whose parents wish for her to return home and find a husband. When he suggests the idea, she asks him in shock if he just proposed to her. “It is the logical thing to do,” is his response- not exactly a love song, but at the same time, a reasonable attempt to achieve desired results.


Turing’s post-humanist tendencies stretch beyond his interactions with other characters, however. The core of his character’s post-humanist tendencies lie in his deductions and treatment of war as a game of numbers. When Turing’s team of mathematicians finally breaks the Enigma code machine, all are ecstatic until they realize that the data they’ve gathered points to an impending attack on a British food convoy, codenamed Coventry. Obviously, every other member of the team wants to call the British Navy, warn them, and prevent the loss of hundreds of innocent lives. All except Turing, who realizes something that the others do not- if they were to stop the attack, the Germans would be alerted that Enigma had been broken. They would change the machine’s settings and all that the team had worked to accomplish would be lost. Silence falls upon the group as they realize what Turing already understands- the war is no longer about thinking of human lives as people, but as numbers. They have to use what Turing calls ‘statistical analysis’, ‘the minimum number of actions it will take for us to win the war, but the maximum number we can take before the Germans get suspicious.’ “Sometimes we can’t do what feels good,” Turing says to his team, “We have to do what feels logical. Our job is not to save one passenger convoy, it’s to win the war.” This is a posthumanist stance, to shut out all ‘human’ feelings of doubt and guilt and focus on the task that needs to happen.


Though the film makes a few passes at more humanist figures within the movie (for example, the character of Peter Hilton, whose brother is stationed on a ship in the Coventry attack, who tries to convince the others to alert the Navy to the attack anyway) it almost portrays Turing’s logic as a necessary evil. To win the war, there must be sacrifices. As he puts it, the teams’ “blood-soaked calculus” wins the war.

The posthumanist views of the movie are tied in with the dialogue and storyline, but also with the way that the film is presented to the audience. For example, the director explained that the war that Turing and his team were fighting was more against time, and then the actual war was separate. “We wanted to express that by dehumanizing it, making it into a war machine,” (Thompson 22) he said, and that is a very posthumanist thought in itself, that a war is about machines and not about people. That was how the actual war was portrayed, with shots of boats and weapons and tanks and fire, but it very little bodies. The film also has a very interesting method of cutting from “Christopher” (the name Turing gave to his machine that broke the Engima code) and its spinning wheels to battle scenes. One particular scene began as a close up on the turning wheels, slowly, clicking away like a clock and time passing, to a shot of tank in the war that rolled over a soldier’s helmet, crushing it into the dirt. This was a very graphic, strong image of the war on time that Turing and his companions were facing, emphasizing the posthumanist theme of the human/posthuman mind, deciding what sacrifices are necessary and what moves can be made for the greater good. Even outside of the cinema, seeing the world as “interplay between informational patterns and material objects is a historically specific construction that emerged in the wake of World War II” (Hayles 14). Technology on the battlefield became “a field of perception”, and any “war machine appears to the military commander as an instrument of representation,” (Virilio 20). Posthumanism stretches beyond cinema into the real world, and in turn is represented in the cinema the same way.

There are other artistic elements that are used in order to emphasize the posthumanist theory behind the film- “Christopher”, the machine, was built to be much larger and with more of its inside mechanics visible to the audience and to run at a slower rate in the film than they were in real life (IMDB).


This would of course add to the suspense and timing of the film, emphasizing the choice of making a decision about human lives in order to end the war as quickly as they possibly can, saving even more lives. The loud whirring of the machine (which is a very annoying combination of a clock and an assembly line), which often drowns out the actors and is often emphasized to drown out their thoughts and invade their dreams, also adds to this feeling of doing whatever is necessary to solve the problem. However, possibly the largest artistic change that the movie made in order to make its posthumanist point was the change of the Coventry attack itself. In real life, though Turing and his team knew that an attack was about to take place, they did not know where or when this attack would happen. The movie played up an old rumor that the British government knew that Coventry was going to be attacked and withheld the information in order to protect the fact that Enigma had been broken, just in case future wars broke out (IMDB). In real life, the posthumanist idea was still real- the ability to chose to protect the Enigma secret was still the priority, choosing to sacrifice some lives to protect hundreds of thousands of others was still the priority. But the film played up Coventry in order to make the post-humanist nature of Turing even greater. Shots of Turing mix with shots of the rotating wheels in order to symbolize the posthumanist brain- playing a number game, choosing who lives and who dies, and simply “because no one else can” (The Imitation Game).

The Imitation Game did try to put a positive, humanist spin on the film throughout. They used Peter as a grieving brother, as well as Turing’s other teammates to emphasize how humans were supposed to think about behave- concerned about their families, their jobs, each other, falling in love. By making Alan seem like the odd man out and, at times, quite unbearable, the post-humanist view was often portrayed as something odd and frightening as well as necessary.


We must also take into consideration that what Turing and his team were doing- changing real people and real lives into numbers that could be lost- was exactly the sort of thinking that they were fighting against with Hitler. He was another posthumanist, playing the numbers of those who were considered “worthy people” against the lives of those that weren’t considered worthy.

And, at the very end, the film tries to make the posthumanist perspective humanist by putting a feel-good spin on it. When the war is over, Turing and Clarke are visiting and Turing wonders what it would have been like to be normal (hint hint, non-posthumanist). Clarke tells him about a town she drove through that would have been destroyed if not for him and his machine, a man she’d met who would have been dead, and says “If you wish you could have been normal, I promise you I do not. The world is an infinitely better place precisely because you weren’t.”


The Imitation Game is an unusual biopic in that it is not all about an ideological, mainstream person who is making a point that audiences expect to hear. It is a posthumanist film without quite being a posthumanist film, it emphasizes the irrational and yet common fear of today’s society that being “posthuman” means being something apocalyptic and frightening, when in reality, it is quite the opposite. Being posthuman is about evolution, the changes that happen as we become more advanced, and Alan Turing is a prime example of becoming posthuman in a society that was not prepared for it. This film takes the normal concept of posthumanism and explains it in a way that is not as frightening but almost inspirational: the story of a man who saved (in theory) over 14 million lives and how his difficult decisions made our world that much safer.

Works Cited:

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifestor: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, Routledge, 1991. PP. 149-181. Print.

Haynes, P. “How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics by N. Katherine Hayles.” Body & Society 7.4 (2001): 105-08. Print.

“The Imitation Game (2014) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2015.

Thomson, Patricia. “Decoding a Legacy.” Production Slate: American Cinematographer. Jan. 2015: 22-28. Print.

Virilio, Paul. “Military Force Is Based upon Deception.” War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1989. 7-8. Print.


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