Of all the things to make a movie out of, why a bunch of computer science geeks trying to make a program that can beat a human at chess? Writer, director and editor Andrew Bujalski’s one-of-a-kind comedy drama Computer Chess provides the unequivocal answer, serving up a strange, philosophical and extraordinarily funny film that you won’t need a master’s degree to appreciate.
It’s 1980, and a mid-market Texas hotel plays host to an unusual tournament: its participants must pit their chess-playing computer programs against each other to see which is the most advanced, with the winning programmers earning the opportunity to try to beat flesh-and-blood chess champion Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary) at his own game.
Shot entirely on black-and-white Sony video cameras hailing from the 1960s, Computer Chess is a skilful recreation of a seminal era in computing. Their machines may have been huge and unwieldy by modern standards, but this early generation of programmers – hailing from US universities like Caltech and MIT – paved the way for those who created the technology behind Google and Facebook.
Although very much an ensemble piece, Computer Chess is largely seen through the eyes of awkward student Peter (Patrick Riester) who wrestles with a sophisticated, bug-ridden chess program even he barely understands. As the tournament progresses through three days of rival universities and battling programs, the hotel becomes a backdrop for a hallucinatory drama about drugs, booze, awkwardness, all-night debugging sessions and ethereal stray cats, where a faintly sleazy fellow programmer named Papageorge (Myles Paige) roams the halls like a frizzy-haired spectre.
While the tournament’s going on – which takes place in a depressing conference room so small that figures keep popping up in front of the camera and then shuffle awkwardly out of frame – there’s a New Age cult-like group engaging in their own rituals, which involve crying out random names and thrusting their hands erotically inside loaves of warm bread.
A film that flirts with multiple genres, Computer Chess somehow manages to present fairly lengthy scenes of discussion about chess and the potentially dangerous exploration of artificial intelligence, and make them utterly captivating. There’s a strikingly apocalyptic tone at times, which seamlessly flips over into comedy, then moments of horrifying unease, and back again. The acting and delivery is so natural that it’s easy to overlook the meticulous detail in the script, which is full of delicious observations and wry humour; there’s a curious poetry to the jargon-filled speech of American computer geeks, and Bujalski’s ear is unerringly alive to it.
The characters, played mostly by a variety of filmmakers, teachers and game designers-turned actors – are uniformly wonderful. There’s Shelly (Robin Schwartz), a female programmer among MIT’s ranks, gamely asserts herself in a male-dominated group of tech geeks. There’s Martin (Dazed And Confused’s Wiley Wiggins) a moustachioed peer of Peter’s who has worrying theories about the program they’re working on. Then there’s Papageorge – a genuinely inspired comic creation with his own brand of faintly sleazy chat-up lines (“I bet you and I are the only people who realise that programming has a feminine side”) and an alarming tendency to wake up in unexpected places. It’s heartening, in fact, to watch a comedy made with a genuine affection for its gallery of flawed geniuses. Absurd things happen to them, but there’s never a sense that Bukalski’s offering his characters up for ridicule.
So unassuming is its fuzzy, 4:3 presentation, it’s easy to overlook that Bujalski’s film is extremely well framed and edited, too; incidental scenes, where a pretty woman’s face is abruptly eclipsed as a gigantic computer terminal thuds onto a table at the front of the frame, are perfectly judged. Moments of confusion are presented with jarring editing that tells the story with efficiency and wit. Far from a gimmick, the use of lo-fi cameras gives Bujalski all kinds of latitude to experiment with camera angles and edits. It’s difficult to recall another film that has such a unique atmosphere – it really does feel like an artefact from the 1980s, scratched lenses and all.
Although ostensibly about programming, Computer Chess succeeds in being about so much more than technical babble. It’s an unpredictable examination of human nature, an awkward romance, a meditation on the limits of technology and what they mean for our future, all told in an intimate, even claustrophobic environment where seemingly anything can happen.
There are recurring images and symbolic moments tucked away in Computer Chess that beg to be discussed and rewatched afterwards – not least the question of genre. Could it be classed as a science fiction film as such, or are its more outlandish moments the by-product of the non-prescription pharmaceuticals floating around the hotel’s rooms?
Enigmatic, intelligent and enormously entertaining from beginning to end, Computer Chess is a real indie treasure – it’s both a nostalgic look at a bygone era, and a fresh, utterly timeless comedy drama.
Computer Chess will be screened at the London Film Festival in October, and goes on a wider UK cinema release on the 22nd November.
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