Director: Andrew Bujalski
Talent: Wiley Wiggins, Gerald Peary, Robin Schwartz, Myles Paige
Release Date: 22nd November 2013
Sometime in the mid-1980s, a group of computer programmers gathered in a dingy motel to compete in a tournament to create a chess-playing artificial intelligence that could beat a human being. Computer Chess chronicles the events taking place in and around the programming competition in a faux documentary fashion, bringing forth insight and further questions into the lives of the assembled computer nerds.
You have to admire director Andrew Bujalski’s commitment to his film’s premise and documentary look: the haircuts, clothes and computers are all of suitable, authentic vintage. For a time, the film looks and feels as a documentary should: the audience is in deep but comprehensible territory as a group of eccentrics compete to achieve something that may be far beyond the average person’s understanding or ability.
Then, out of nowhere, we’re treated to an acid-induced montage of a programmer, Michael Papageorge, wandering the halls, sleeping on floors and taking part in a quasi-religious birthing ceremony. The documentary illusion is broken and so, more generally, is the narrative drive of the film.
Post-acid trip, Computer Chess baffles at every turn, left adrift in a sea of non sequiturs and bizarre situations. The audience is left wandering aimlessly also, unable to latch onto anything or anyone and, just when the film presents something or someone to care about, another distraction is thrown up. The story even veers into body horror and sci-fi territory in its final act.
One feels that Bujalski wasn’t sure where to go with his film, what to do with this motel full of nerds, swingers and evangelicals. The commitment to the authentic look of the production is certainly noteworthy; it’s a shame that the film’s narrative and characters lack the same follow-through and detail. Ultimately, Computer Chess is a messy, often wilfully boring film that’s admirable for its chutzpah, if nothing else.
Words: Luke Maxwell