Cult Cinema: Computer Chess (2013) - Reviewed

Years before taking on screenwriting gigs like the 2019 Disney live action remake of Lady and the Tramp, writer-director Andrew Bujalski was known among early-2000s cinephiles as the ‘Godfather of mumblecore’.  That subgenre of film not too dissimilar from Trier & Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 Manifesto for its emphasis on shoestring budgets and improvised dialogue or performances, mumblecore caught fire in 2002 with Bujalski’s debut Funny Ha Ha.  Generally his films are set in the present day and concern younger characters, but with his fourth feature film Computer Chess he embarked on his first period piece with acute attention to minute details signifying the dawn of what would or would not evolve into what we know as the digital age.

Set in 1980, Computer Chess begins innocently enough as a “documentary” film chronicling a California based computer programming tournament to see who can develop the best program for playing computer chess.  Initially comprised of separate interviews of the nerdy programmers competing in the tournament, the film gradually goes belly up as a satirical absurdist comedy lampooning nerd culture.  An ensemble piece where no single character takes center stage, the film is cut together somewhat like a Richard Linklater film, episodic and anecdotal in form.  But then the plot thickens as the Pentagon takes an interest in the tournament and eventually becomes an existential dialogue on the birth of artificial intelligence and what that might mean for the years to come. 
The first thing viewers will notice aside from the care taken to recreate a bygone era is the cinematography.  Shot entirely on a Sony 1968 AVC-3260 black-and-white video camera, the film has the aura of a found VHS tape demonstrating the possibilities of the Commodore 64/128 5-inch floppy disk based personal computer.  Even the poster art is designed to look like an Atari-2600 game cartridge box.  The effect of watching an entire film shot that way in the present is like going back in time.  It doesn’t just feel like the 1980s, it utilizes cameras that were most certainly in use at the time of the film’s setting.

A snarky and occasionally surreal put on by writer-director Andrew Bujalski, this is period science-fiction fused with mumblecore as well as existential comedy.  Moreover, the film encapsulates what would or would not become nerd or geek culture at its genesis.  While the deliberately archaic visual aesthete takes some getting used to, the film all but pulls you into its world of clunky computer parts, thick rimmed glasses and oversized CRT monitors all set up within the confines of a cheap motel.  Some will come away irritated by Bujalski’s talky slice-of-life vision of the early purveyors of computer driven culture but for myself Computer Chess was a wild, frequently hilarious ride of a movie.

--Andrew Kotwicki