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Computer Chess

2013 | 92 min | Not rated | 1.33:1

Computer Chess


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Theatrical release date

 17 July, 2013
 22 November, 2013

Country of origin

 United States



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Screenshots from Computer Chess Blu-ray

Computer Chess Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 8, 2013

“Computer Chess” has a gimmick, and it’s a pretty fantastic one. Set in the early 1980s, the picture is shot with antique Portapak equipment, the kind of camera one wouldn’t dare point directly toward the sun. It lends the feature an endearingly low-fi look that’s played almost entirely straight, setting the retro mood with an authentic visual presence that’s amusing to simply study, unearthing vivid memories concerning the early stages of the video moviemaking revolution. Unfortunately, the effort’s imagination is limited to its look, as “Computer Chess” appears to mistake stasis for subversion, leaving the material’s quest to depict programming authenticity admirable, but hardly enough to fill out an entire film.

Gathering at a suburban hotel for a long weekend of challenges, teams of computer programmers have arrived to prove themselves at a chess tournament. Tasked with building the best program that could face the finest human response, the squads are left with their equipment and considerable ego, finding the days pressurized by mishaps and program “suicides.” In the mix is Martin (Wiley Wiggins), who’s fascinated by the test ahead of him; Peter (Patrick Riester), a young, impressionable man overwhelmed by the chaos of the weekend; and Michael (Myles Paige), who’s hunger for chemical distractions take him on a journey around the hotel, with a field of vision teeming with feline imagery. Overseeing the conference is Pat (Gerald Peary, delivering the film’s best performance), an arrogant blowhard who can’t wait to topple the computer revolution with his refined chess skills. Despite early intentions to keep the event contained, the teams eventually splinter into hotel escapades and deep conversations about programming, lessening the importance of victory.

“Computer Chess” certainly has a visual personality, but it’s difficult to tell if there’s a dramatic one as well. Surprisingly, this is not a found footage enterprise, with the collected tapes providing a fly-on-the-wall summation of the geeky weekend, cementing the illusion of the early ‘80s. The cast looks the part with dated fashions and rough facial hair, while the computer equipment is appropriately bulky, causing visible strain on those forced to lug these systems around. The ingredients are there for a convincing comedy, immersed in the details of the era. However, director Andrew Bujalski elects a proudly fictional route, weirdly reminding the audience that these are actors at work, keeping their interactions stagy and the performances knowing. Bujalski just isn’t interested in pulling off an incredible trick.

This is a dull feature, a crushing realization brought on by Bujalski’s disinterest in dramatic escalation, preferring to play the entirety of the effort as one long conversation the filmmaker himself barely shows interest in. There’s no sense of characterization, only expertise, observing the players debate the intricacies of computer programming and game theory while growing frustrated with setbacks, while a few partake in chemical distractions, treating the hotel getaway as a rare shot of freedom. You might be asking, “Brian, how could a screenplay devoted to an extended and detailed discussion of algorithms be uninteresting?” Amazingly, the technical side of the story is completely deflated by deadpan delivery, and while the picture plays directly to a specialized knowledge (a proud achievement), it doesn’t invite outsiders into the hunt for chessboard supremacy. In fact, because the look of “Computer Chess” is inherently distancing, it feels like watching rehearsal footage for a better movie that was never made.

To combat the stagnancy of the work, Bujalski allows a few surreal touches to seep into what passes here for a narrative, including Michael’s drug-fueled adventure around the hotel premises, while hints of a growing presence of computer A.I. also derail matters, making the movie less about the chess challenge and more about whatever Bujalski dreams up on the day. “Computer Chess” hints at some interesting funny business, watching Peter squirm around a swinging couple (the hotel is also hosting a couples therapy gathering) and Pat badger anyone who dares interfere with his authority, but the laughs rarely connect. In fact, there isn’t much here that demands attention, with most of “Computer Chess” content to exist without the participation of the audience. It’s an attractive technical exercise, but little else about the picture engages.

Starring: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins
Director: Andrew Bujalski

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