Computer Chess: the ultimate geek indie comedy?

Feature Ryan Lambie
28 Jan 2013 - 06:58

The winner of the Sloane Prize at Sundance, the indie comedy Computer Chess may prove to be the geekiest film of 2013...

If you've heard of the Alfred P Sloane Prize, you'll probably know that it's been an annual fixture at the Sundance Film Festival since 2003. Set up to reward independent movies with a scientific or technological theme, its list of winners from the past decade includes Shane Carruth's time-travel sci-fi movie Primer, Werner Herzog's captivating documentary Grizzly Man, and Mike Cahill's indie SF drama Another Earth.

Sloane Prize winners earn a $20,000 cash prize, a sum which often amounts to a fair percentage of each film's budget; Cahill's ethereal Another Earth cost a remarkably lean $200,000 to make, while Primer was made for an absurdly lean $7,000. The prize is therefore quite an unusual film award, in that it singles out films with ideas greater than their makers' resources.

This year's Sloane Prize winner is no exception. It's Computer Chess, the latest film from filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, whose previous work includes the acclaimed Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax. While those earlier films were shot on 16mm, Computer Chess is, if anything, even more lo-fi; it's shot on an utterly obsolete Sony video camera from the 1960s, giving the film a distinctive look - all grainy artefacts and high-contrast black-and-white.

The lo-fi look is perfectly in keeping with Computer Chess's off-beat and unusually nerdy premise. It's set in 1980, and introduces a group of eccentric computer programmers as they compete to write the first AI chess game smart enough to beat a flesh-and-blood player. The film takes place over a single weekend, as the group work through bleary-eyed coding sessions and engage in all sorts of awkward and strange conversations and romantic dalliances.

As if all that doesn't sound nerdy enough by itself, consider this: Bujalski has assembled an unusual cast - many of whom are programmers and technicians first, and actors second. Wiley Wiggins, for example (who plays the character Martin Beuscher) may be familiar from Richard Linklater's Dazed And Confused and Waking Life, but he's also an indie games designer who's currently working on an iPad game. 

As Bujalski explained in a lively interview with Wired, the use of first-time actors with computer knowledge added much to the film's sense of detail. "I needed real computer guys who could speak that language and help me make it feel right instead of me sitting with a bunch of books open in my lap trying to write it," the writer, director and editor explained. "A lot of the actors in this movie are real computer guys. Gordon Kindlmann is a computer science professor at the University of Chicago. Wiley Wiggins, who people know from Dazed And Confused, is incredibly knowledgeable. He’s more a computer guy than an actor."

After years of fudged computer science in movies, and tech geeks largely relegated to the role of bespectacled sidekicks - see Skyfall as a recent example of suspect computing in cinema - Computer Chess redresses the balance, offering up a convincing time capsule of a unique moment in modern history. It appears to be a film that laughs with rather than at its characters, too, presenting them as eccentric geniuses, fighting with ungainly 80s technology while simultaneously battling their own social awkwardness. You can get a flavour of the film's observational, off-beat humour at its website, where a secret trailer can be activated by clicking the space bar on an image of an old computer.

That preview's line, "What we're working on here is perfecting strategies for winning conflicts, right? Are we so sure that these are strategies we want to perfect?" It's a piece of dialogue which sums up the more serious themes lurking in the film. It touches on 80s anxieties about AI technology during the Cold War (as seen in movies like The Terminator and WarGames), but also provides a glimpse of a major turning-point in computer science: it's thanks to the pioneering work of programmers and designers in the 80s that we have search technology such as Google, for instance.

Computer Chess has already earned warm reviews aside from its prestigious Sloane Prize - with any luck, this festival attention will mean that this quirky and uniquely geeky indie film gets a UK distributor soon.

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