Writer/director Andrew Bujalski has crafted something unique with ”Computer Chess”. Not quite brilliant, but the multiple layers of creative invention make it one of the most distinctive movies so far this year and it’s certainly nothing like you’ve seen before.
Firstly, it’s a completely staged documentary about a convention where computer experts pit their systems against professional chess players to see who comes off better. It’s an idea we’ve explored in the real world in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
But in the next Inception-like level of creative innovation it actually takes place in 1983, which is where Bujalski’s design takes flight. In everything from the clunky, university-built computers of the day to the moustaches and sweatshirts that were in style, you could easily stumble across Computer Chess and think it was made – not set – in the early eighties.
Drilling even further down the rabbit hole, Bujalski makes the whole convention a low rent and shambolically organised affair. When it turns out the smarmy participant Papageorge’s reservation at the hotel hasn’t been made he roams the halls, knocking on doors and asking to use spare beds before finally sleeping in the lobby, convention room floor and even the emergency exit stairs.
It’s all staged at the kind of hotel you’ll find near an airport, one with convention rooms and meeting facilities that hardly justify the terms. There’s a very funny running gag about the group of new age transcendentalists holding their confab at the same time, hilariously crossing paths with the computers nerds and chess players.
Finally it seems to have a much deeper undercurrent about artificial intelligence. During an impromptu get together in one of their rooms, the assembled computer scientists share some weed and ruminate over the future of machine learning. It’s not explicitly mentioned again, but keep your eye on the (inexpensive) lady of the night hanging around the venue – what she does in the last few frames seems to transplant the film into some parallel universe 1983 and take the rug out from under you all at once.
What it all means is anyone’s guess – if there’s even a subtext at all. Whether you think there’s a theme but can’t find it or you’re grasping at straws that don’t exist, the brilliant design of the movie (right down to the poster) makes up for any narrative shortcomings. The costuming and script are natural and completely appropriate to the period and the performers use enough deliberate tics and stumbles to make it seem almost faultlessly natural.
DVD : A ‘Crowd-Funding’ plea video, two commentaries and trailers.