Computer Chess, directed by Andrew Bujalski, starts as a mockumentary of sorts, covering the 1984 North American computer chess tournament in a middle of nowhere hotel. You find out about the competition, the people running it, the ‘spectators’ who expect Skynet to be the winner and even get to see a couple of matches. Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary) acts as awkward host of the tournament’s filmed coverage as well as the person to challenge the tournament winning computer in a bet that, by 1985, a computer would not beat him at chess.
Then, when the camera suddenly appears in hotel rooms and the nearby couples group, you slowly realize this movie isn’t mostly about the chess at all. It’s about a much stranger world, in the prime of the revolution of more improved computers and artificial intelligence sliding into a world still transitioning from the laid back period of the 70s, as the couples group demonstrates rather quickly.
The cast are all relative unknowns, with only a handful having worked on films outside of this one, but there was not a bad, unconvincing performance from any of them. Particular enjoyable ones were Patrick Riester, playing the shy and intelligent Peter Bishton and Myles Paige, playing Michael Papageorge, coincidentally two guys who also have the crazier stuff happen to. The structure of the film had to rely on the cast almost ‘acting’ like this was a documentation rather than a film and it’s the fact that this gets pulled off seamlessly is
What probably keeps the interest of the viewer throughout the movie is the unique, perfected 80s film camera style. The amount of work and effort that must have gone in to make it look so retro is staggering and one that has never looked this ‘right’ before in other hands. Even down to the little touches of cameras having imprints of their subject on the footage after they move or even the weird crackles and dust that appears on the surface, it is almost amazing on how much character it adds to the overall production and would be appreciated by people with a keener interest or nostalgia for the look.
The thing that makes it crazier is that all the things Computer Chess sets up, it never explains. It doesn’t let you know if Man can beat computer nor wraps up all the other subplots it sets up. You leave coming up with your own endings and conclusions. It’s a weird feeling and it’s weirder in the fact that you are able to forgive all of that with its quirky characters and world it builds. It’s a movie that festivals like London and Sundance, where it won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for films that cover science and technology matters, showcase the best.
Computer Chess turns out to be is an interesting, compelling movie with a world built on not really being able to understand its sights and sounds or the scenarios it puts out. Not in a patronising, pretentious ‘We’re deep’ sort of way, but in a ‘laugh at whatever the movie decides to throw at you’ sort of way. The best thing is, you don’t even need to care about computer chess to enjoy it. Even if you did, it won’t help you very much.
The London Film Festival starts from the the 9th of October to the 20th with tickets still available at the festival’s official website.
You can also buy Computer Chess now, DRM free or on iTunes if you’re in the US, from the movie’s official website.