It’s easy to take modern technology for granted. We are carrying in our pockets devices that are orders of magnitude more powerful than the computers used in the Apollo missions. The ability to read this review is based on technology originally developed specifically for the Cold War. We can forget the effort it took to get us here, so it’s good when a film like Computer Chess comes along paying tribute to that first main generation of coders and programmers. More than that though, Computer Chess is a look at our relationship with machines, and it’s interesting that it achieves this effect by looking backwards rather than forwards.
Set in the early ‘80s, the film follows a computer chess tournament, where teams from several major institutions and a few indies all show off their coding skill. One small issues is the hotel is double booked with a couples counselling weekend, so things are a bit awkward working around the two. Actually, awkward sums up a lot of the weekend, what with one entrant’s quest to find a room at the hotel, a lot of cats turning up out of nowhere and one computer’s bug that could just be the artificial intelligence everyone’s hoping for.
With the phrase “computer game tournament”, your mind may turn to such fare as The King of Kong or The Wizard but this film takes things in a very different direction. The tournament is really just an excuse to bring these characters together and allow their egos, of which many of these characters have in spades, to bounce off each other. Several people there, like tournament judge Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary), are classic “king of their own little world” comedy characters, with their own funny moments of ego deflation. The film could very easily have gone down the route of “huh-huh, look at the nerds!” but instead focuses on character flaws, such as pride in their work, therefore sidestepping that issue neatly.
Even though this is a comedy, don’t go in expecting a complete laugh riot. The humour tends to be subtle (one good example is the way that some pot smoking characters are staying in room 420). At least one of the cast, Wiley Wiggins, is a veteran of the work of Richard Linklater and it is Linklater’s style of character based humour this film has going for it.
The film raises some interesting points about our relations to technology. Although many references do link this film to the Cold War specifically, there are ways in which you realise the characters are beginning to behave like machines, just as one machine begins to act human. This is emphasised in a very surreal final scene, bringing more than a few of the film’s scenes full circle.
Production wise, director Andrew Bujalski gives the film a unique look, using older 4:3 black and white video (apart for one scene), giving the whole thing an antiquated by today’s standards look. The narrower aspect ratio actually helps the film to have a far more tighter, more personal feel to scenes, which for a character-focused film like this is a boon. Most of the film’s performers aren’t professional actors, many working in other capacities in film, editing and computing. This is another plus, as no-one feels like they are “acting”, it all flows very naturally. Special mention should be made of lead Patrick Riester (an editor making his acting debut here), who manages to give a performance that mostly consists of looking concerned over his glasses have a lot of depth.
Computer Chess has the much-vaunted “independent spirit” through and through and is all the stronger for it. By going for such a small, focused, retro approach, Bujalski gives a much truer tribute to the subject matter than a slicker studio production ever could. This film isn’t going to be for everyone’s tastes, this is a comedy that one studies and considers more than have side-splitting giggling fits at. However, if you can see the funny side in fare like Dr. Strangelove and The Thick of It, you’ll probably get a lot out of this one. Computer Chess is smarts, treats its audience as intelligent and is honestly unlike anything else out this year.