COMPUTER CHESS will be one of the oddest, and perhaps one of the finest, films you will see this year. Set over a weekend in a roadside hotel somewhere in America in the early ’80s, the film starts as an apparent period documentary about the new concept of the ‘computer chess tournament’. We meet the teams, the programmers and their very different-looking (but all equally huge) computers, and the rules and history of the game are explained.
Filmed entirely on black-and-white video equipment of the time, the opening tone and docu-fiction framing seamlessly segue into a (slightly) more conventional narrative as the personalities and rivalries of the computer programmers are played out before us.
In some respects COMPUTER CHESS is akin to this year’s technological breakthrough and smash hit GRAVITY: the style and techniques are so integral to the narrative that they in a sense (and at several points literally) become part of the story, thereby creating a form of total cinematic expression (albeit on a much more modest scale than Alfonso Cuarón’s multimillion-dollar effort).
However, there is more to COMPUTER CHESS than technological geekery and a very well put-together dose of nostalgia. The film is often hilarious (you will be glad to have been introduced to Michael Papageorge), unsettling, existential (“to try and compute all those games might take even longer than humanity would be around to do so,” explains a young programmer to a couple staying in the hotel), oddly romantic, and often just plain weird (there’s a kind of rebirth scene).
The film is able to play with cinematic form, our perceptions of the future and how we look at the past, and there is enough stimulation in the themes, style and characters to keep you entertained in a way you might not have expected.
Writer-director Andrew Bujalski (whose 2002 mumblecore breakthrough FUNNY HA HA now stands as essentially the blueprint for Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s perfectly accomplished FRANCES HA) has stepped forward from the genre that made his name. But in doing so he has also taken everything he learnt from (and gave to) that genre to a new, original and very unexpected place. COMPUTER CHESS is arguably one of the best and most original American indie movies of the last ten years.
You can watch COMPUTER CHESS at Picturehouse Cinemas on Tuesday 17 December as part of the Discover Tuesdays programme.