Computer Chess, 2013.
Directed by Andrew Bujalski.
Starring Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher and Wiley Wiggins.
Various programmers come together at a hotel in the early 1980s for a tournament in which they pit their computer software against each other in games of chess.
‘Mockumentary’ is a term that, while not quite pejorative, creates a pretty solid set of expectations. To read a synopsis of Computer Chess you’d be forgiven for expecting this tale of competing programmers all attempting to produce software capable of beating a human at chess to lean heavily on its 1980s setting, but those familiar with director Andrew Bujalski shouldn’t expect a wild departure in tone from any of his previous films. The setting of a weekend computer chess tournament in which programmers pit their software against each other for the chance to test it against a real life Grandmaster (and win $7,500) would, in most hands, deal exclusively in the comedy of hindsight; smug mockery of fashion, hairstyles and fads of the time. Bujalski foregoes this easy temptation and has instead delivered a low-key comedy that deals in dry absurdism and characters that are more than just elements of the chosen era given a voice.
The dialogue and performances are uniformly naturalistic, with Myles Paige being the closest thing the film has to an exaggeration of humanity with his portrayal of a man in search of a bed… or a couch… or a floor. Patrick Riester as Bishton is the quintessential shy programmer who isn’t necessarily looking for love but sensitive enough to know that something is missing in his life. Pat Henderson is especially deserving of note for his portrayal of a man enamoured with the fanfare surrounding what he perceives to be attempts to best his intellect, but the entire cast are admirable if only for their willingness to sit back and let the atmosphere take centre stage. The humour is more readily apparent during the beginning and the end with the middle ceding too much time to hypothetical musings, but due to the tonal disparity between scenes it doesn’t take much for the film to grab your wandering attention back from the brink.
The dedication to the conceit is felt in every aspect of the film, most notably the 4:3 aspect ratio and (almost complete) lack of colour, but as the film progresses visual flourishes begin to shine through and challenge the established reality, as do the characters. Subjectivity seeps into the documentary format as some characters ingest drugs, some begin to question the nature of artificial intelligence and others question the validity of their own experiences. The legitimacy of this computer intelligence as a form of life only comes up verbally in the context of a drug-fuelled discussion between two programmers, but cracks eventually show as the film folds in on itself and the tournament attendees all begin to experience humanity encroaching on their world of logic removed from emotion. These are people who relish the thrill of victory; the excitement of vanquishing a foe with their intellect, but this comes at the cost of emotional isolation. To create something greater than a human mind requires more than typical thinking, but leaving behind everything that makes us human isn’t something anybody here is ready for.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★