SIFF Film Review – Computer Chess
On paper, the new film Computer Chess sounds like a fun and intriguing trip through exploring the early days of computer programming. Set during the early 1980s when dot matrix printers spewed out long trails of sheets covered in arcane Fortran code, the idea of portraying an early chess tournament populated by young Bill Gates/Paul Allen types sounds fun. And the conceit of filming the whole affair in mostly black and white using nothing but vintage video equipment that was available at the time seems like it would create a time capsule of a hilariously retro computing era. Unfortunately, this film is neither as engaging nor as fun as all that sounds.
The entire film takes place during a weekend at a nondescript hotel where presumably the best programming minds from around the country have gathered to pit their various semi-professional computing projects against each other to win a $7500 prize and a chance to play against the resident human chess champion. There are a couple of documentary filmmakers present who are filming the whole tournament for posterity. One team who should have had one of the frontrunning computers in the tournament ends up losing early on. A withdrawn programmer who is almost the spitting image of a young Bill Gates seriously questions why their machine tanked the match and is reassured by a professor whom everyone treats like a celebrity that it’s just too complex a system to understand. He is told everything is basically fine. But is this machine gaining a consciousness of its own? Meanwhile, a standout character, the widely unliked Papageorge (Myles Paige), is another frontrunner in the match-up. But no one really likes him and he spends most of his weekend just trying to find a bed to sleep in. He eventually hooks up with a couples encounter group that is also meeting in the hotel. A scene where they collectively have him reenact his own birth is the funniest moment in the film.
Despite all of these good ideas going for it, Computer Chess is a slog to get through. The acting is pretty amateurish. Yes, this is in the mumblecore tradition of understated, realistic filmmaking, where everything is trying to look organic. And yes, these are computer geeks who aren’t supposed to be charismatic at all. But much of their line reading comes off as flat. It’s often hard to discern motivations from anyone involved. Also, though writer/director Andrew Bujalski decided to use vintage video equipment, oddly the images come off looking less of the time period, not more. It’s strange, but everything looks like it’s got that modern digital photography look to it. It’s distracting at times. Instead of an immersive retro experience like Dazed and Confused or Grindhouse that purposely looked of their period, much of this film looks like a student film shot on modern equipment.
There are a couple of things they got right, like the clothing and look of the programmers. The unflattering haircuts, the black rimmed glasses, the short-sleeved button-up shirts all look like they were lifted from 1982. And the boxy computers with their monochromatic green screens and dot matrix printers are definitely artifacts of another era. If more of that spirit had infused the whole production, it would have been more fun to watch.
Computer Chess feels like a missed opportunity. There is something to the idea of revisiting when processing power was still being developed and the smartest, dorkiest minds competed for programming supremacy. Also, the idea of artificial intelligence being developed at an early stage is compelling. But here it’s barely touched on. The stilted acting and undercooked production values kind of sink the film.
Computer Chess premiered locally at the Seattle International Film Festival and is now playing in limited release.