The 92-minute feature “Computer Chess” sees The White Stripes’ “Elephant” (which was recorded without the aid of computers, on pre-1968 equipment) and raises it: The film was shot with the hardware of the time it depicts, which means a 4:3 aspect ratio and the occasional blast-from-the-past split-screen effect. It’s also shot mostly in black and white, save for some trippier scenes that proves that even hardcore nerds like to party.
It’s the early 1980s and a cohort of geeks are gathered at a hotel for a weekend-long competition of man and machine. Each team’s built a chess-playing computer to square off against the others in a tournament, the winner of which gets to throw down against living, breathing chess master Pat Henderson (played by longtime Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary, his acting debut), who, while no doubt a formidable chess player, proves himself a self-aggrandizing goof as the weekend’s emcee. We meet nerds Peter Bishton, Martin Beuscher, and Shelly Flintic, the tournament’s first-ever female competitor, each so introverted and socially unsure of themselves that their communications often get mixed up. These aren’t stereotypically developed, “Big Bang Theory”-type nerds though, who get mocked for pretending to be beastmasters. Director Andrew Bujalski is careful to develop each of them individually, even if they’re all fairly similar as dedicated computer programmers.
Meanwhile a hug-happy hippy cult holds meetings in the same room as the engineers and one of the members of the MIT squad, Michael Papageorge, wanders the hotel at nights roomless, due to a mix-up with his reservation. Papageorge swipes some pills and the resultant scenes carry a strong “The Shining” vibe with their long hallways and odd brushes with stuff that doesn’t quite seem to belong in reality.
Bujalski’s greatest victory with “Computer Chess” is in his dedication to this odd little world. All the props (especially those bulky computers), clothing, and appearances –those mustaches!– avoid modern developments. And the end where the computer triumphs over its fleshy opponent feels like a logical outcome after all those philosophical discussions about the future of artificial intelligence. Bujalski also proves adept at a variety of humor, particularly comedy of errors and outright absurdism.
At over an hour and a half “Computer Chess” felt long to me, due to the jump-around narrative and some stuff that seemed unnecessary, like when Papageorge and another character ditch the tournament to visit his mother. It’s also acted so slow and deliberately to suggest that its characters’ personalities aren’t so different from their chess-playing creations, and that gets hard to watch after a while. It’s definitely a cult flick, but I don’t really see it ever achieving cult classic status until computers take over the world and vaporize all the other films they find unflattering. – carney