Review: 'Computer Chess'


When The AV Club comes out with its best movies of of the year list, I always scour through Netflix to see if any of them are streaming. And when I saw that Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess was available, it instantly leapt to

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the top of my queue. The movie -- shot with a grainy handheld and presented almost exclusively in black and white -- covers a weekend in the 1980s where a group of passionate nerds gather in an unnamed town to pit their computer chess programs against one another. It's set entirely in the hotel hosting the event, as a cavalcade of nontraditional actors (film editors, real-life programmers, a film critic, the guy from Waking Life) struggle to interact while their computers engage in virtual combat. Computer Chess begins as a relatively straightforward look at this quirky gathering, complete with requisite banter about when a computer will finally become "smart" enough to defeat a human champion (played by the aforementioned, perfectly smug film critic). But before long, it evolves into an eccentric traipse through reality, one made even more ridiculous by the film's setting and style. One programmer can't find a place to sleep, ending up in a room packed with cats, while another is almost seduced by a couple also staying at the hotel for some sort of new age mini-convention. Pieces of heads are removed; computers ask questions of their creators. Real weird shit. The entire time, we're treated to on-screen glitches and effects that remind us of the low-budget, amateur status of the tournament (and its documentarian). Occasionally the screen splits into two to capture the reactions of both speaking characters; during the introductory "press conference," descriptive text (seemingly inserted in "post") displays as sort of an alert to any change in topic. The line between what's being filmed now and what was somehow captured in the past (or outside the realm of the in-film cameras) is constantly blurred; it's difficult to tell who is reliable, or why, which makes every surreal twist all the more delightful. The look and feel of the film is intensely of the '80s, but not in a distracting way. Large glasses, dorky hairstyles and tight pants are prevalent; combined with the general awkwardness of a cast of non-actors, a sort of heightened, eccentric realism is achieved from the start. And while several philosophical questions linger throughout, Bujalski seems to prefer his themes as backdrop for awkward interactions, not as uncertainties that need to be answered. Only a rare pair, doomsday predictors who came to watch the tournament, seem to want answers. The rest are looking to be made whole by solving the mysteries of their not-quite-there programs. Was Computer Chess the fifth-best movie of 2013, as The AV Club proclaimed? Probably not. There are too many scenes that go nowhere (not even to Comedy Town), and the characters are relatively undefined. But in terms of unconventionality, very few releases this year can come close to matching Bujalski's creation.