With a title like Computer Chess you’d think that the film is about a bunch of grandmasters battling it out in a heroic man vs. machine slugfest. Then you see it’s an Andrew Bujalski joint and you’re like “Aw man, it’s going to a roomful of awkward goofs mumbling about their shortcomings.” Well, don’t sweat it. This film is not mumblecore – I know that word turns a lot of people off (including myself), but Computer Chess doesn’t suffer from any of the trappings that silly-sounding genre is known for. It’s a very smart film (almost startlingly so) that takes a simple plot and goes to some dark and strange places to explore the innate weirdness of society.
Computer Chess is set during a weekend computer chess tournament at a small hotel, circa early 1980s. Teams of programmers from esteemed institutions like MIT and Cal Tech are there to wage war with their state-of-the-art computer chess programs. The moderator is played by longtime Boston film critic Gerald Peary, who believes that no machine can ever beat man at a game of chess. Well, no machine can beat him at chess.
Much of the film focuses on Peter (Patrick Riester), an introverted junior programmer who begins to suspect that his computer can detect when it’s competing against a human, rather than another machine. Another programmer tells him that the same computer attempted to have a cryptic dialogue with him. These hints of self-consciousness have Peter shook and it doesn’t help when he’s subtly propositioned for a threesome. This guy’s having a rough weekend.
Wandering around the tournament like some kind of drug philosopher wizard is Papageorge (Myles Paige), who finds himself without a hotel room. As he floats from place to place, he encounters a whole lotta stray cats and a pair of conspiracy theory luddites who observe the tournament with morbid interest. At one point, Papageorge leaves the hotel’s surroundings to get some drug money. Here the film switches to color and stumbles a bit to make this piece of the puzzle fit. Rather than this small hiccup, Computer Chess is damn near flawless.
Along with the talented ensemble, what helps make the film so strong is the impressive authenticity in its details and design. Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky used analog cameras to shoot in black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio, giving the film the look of archival footage from an actual computer chess tournament. The clothing, computers, hairstyles – all of it adds to the amazingly detailed world. And in this world, computers have not yet taken over our everyday lives like they have in our contemporary iWorld.
The film is set right on the cusp of the home computer boom and these characters are right on the front lines of the change. The parallel scenarios exhibited in the film suggest that maybe the machines have already won. As the character lug their heavy computer equipment (a laughable notion nowadays) around the hotel, they resemble slaves performing backbreaking chores. They devote themselves to creating computer programs, so when shit goes off the rails their inability to communicate to other humans makes for some hilariously deadpan moments. Miscommunication, whether it be between frustrated men or machines, is explored in its various forms throughout the film – often with genuinely funny results.
I don’t believe that Bujalski was attempting satire with Computer Chess. It’s more of a snapshot of a moment in time – a prologue of the technology age. He treats the obsessive, hyper-logical characters of the film with respect, not like stereotypical Big Bang Theory bullshit nerds. And they inhabit a totally believable world of sadness, humor, and mercurial machines. While the complexities of artificial intelligence are addressed, the story is more about the idea of AI, rather than an actual debate of its merit.
It’s a provocative film that’ll surely fall flat with casual movie watchers – meaning it’s a rich gift for an audience that enjoys being challenged. It’s also funny and fragmented enough that it would make a good film to watch with friends. Computer Chess is an intelligent being of cinematic bliss and I can’t recommend it enough.
Computer Chess is currently playing in limited release. Check out their official page for dates and theaters.