Andrew Bujalski's new movie takes place in the early 1980s, set at an annual convention in which programmers are working to develop a computer chess program that could win over a human chess master—an early battle of artificial intelligence versus the human spirit. Regardless of your interest in chess, computer or otherwise, Computer Chess is hilarious and marvelously entertaining.
It starts slow and stays slow, but it manages to wrap around your attention with a quirky script, carefully droll acting, and some half-ironic, half-sincere meditations on artificial intelligence. In the first eight and a half minutes of the movie, my eyeballs nearly dried out of boredom, but I'm so glad I kept watching.
Bujalski is a proven master of capturing an era. He's previously focused his attention on modern love, with the zeitgeisty indies Funny Ha Ha, Beeswax, and Mutual Attraction. For Computer Chess he not only captures perfect early 80s outfits and outrageously sized computers, he takes a strong stylistic measure to capture a feeling of the time, filming in late-70s analog. The whole thing looks washed out grey-on-grey. Sometimes, there are random bursts of light on the film and fuzzy focusing. The film itself adds an idiosyncratic layer of funny to the whole project.
The acting is stellar, an accomplishment because the camera's jarring close-ups put pressure on details of the performances. Across the board, the characters are played with a fascinating, winking deliberateness. Gerald Peary as the master of ceremonies and professor, as well as Robin Schwartz as the first "lady" programmer, are particularly amusing. Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, and Myles Paige all hold their own. The actors carry off Bujalski's dedication to the awkwardness of language, which make the flashes of brilliance really rewarding.
A brilliant turn of the plot involves another competing group converges at this cheesy hotel. This set of people is also emblematic of time, a strange set of people gathered for a touchy meditation group therapy. The contrasts of the programmers and these new-age meditators is brilliant. Each group comes across as a strange mix of enlightened and batty, with this nondescript hotel backdrop as a weird set for their high-minded ideas. The best thing about Computer Chess is its dedication to capture the lofty ideas of the time, in addition to period detail of overly large computers and nerdy button-ups. The script darts from conversations about artificial intelligence, innovation, confirmation theory, meditation, to truth-seeking generally, and back again.
The humor of Computer Chess is dry and loopy, but it's a poignant movie as well, particularly when the characters wade in the weeds of these heady subjects. While the movie wander offs at some points, its moments of brilliance are worth sticking around for.
Computer Chess won the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize as Sundance. It's in theaters in New York at the moment and will open throughout the country over the next few weeks.
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