Those of us who remember the early days of computers and an era before technology became the everyday fabric of our social and working existence can’t but have a soft spot for Computer Chess. The fourth feature from Andrew Bujalski, a US filmmaker whose films, including Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, ignited the relatively short-lived ‘mumblecore’ trend of low-budget American independent filmmaking, it is described by its producers as an ‘artificially intelligent’ comedy. Though a little too reductive and pleading for attention, the tag is not a million miles wide of the mark. The winner of the prestigious Arthur P. Sloan Award, an achievement recognising a film based around the theme of science and/or technology, Computer Chess is by some considerable margin the director’s most accomplished, accessible and prescient work.
Computer Chess is set in and around an isolated roadside motel over the course of a 1980s weekend conference, where a group of obsessive software programmers have convened to pit their latest refinements in machine chess and the still-developing field of artificial intelligence against a somewhat circumspect chess master. One of the junior programmers attending the conference, a singularly unappetising banquet of cheap plaid suits, bad coffee and bland interiors, begins to suspect that the computer for which he is responsible has developed the ability to detect the difference between a human and an artificial opponent. The computer begins to display elements of self-consciousness, rather like a benign HAL from Kubrick’s 2001. Meanwhile, the junior programmer’s own attempts to engage with the sole female attendee at the conference, about whom a great deal of fuss is made, is punctured by social awkwardness and a preference for interaction with keyboards and motherboards over humans.
Gesturing towards the semi-virtual, hyper-social and dehumanised landscape that is now our everyday reality, Computer Chess effectively anticipates how insecurity and a lack of self-confidence would come to be rendered of little consequence in a brave new digital era, an environment dominated by the iPad, the iPhone and the age of the app. Perfectly capturing a period in which technology seemed within easy reach – although it still had to be accessed by middle-aged men with terrible haircuts, synthetic suits and spectacles the size of sofas – the film’s most genuinely astonishing aspect is its beautifully articulated visual aesthetic. Like Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s recent No, which was filmed on Umatic VHS cameras to capture the visual tone of 1980s Chile, Computer Chess uses period equipment to incredible effect.
Sourcing archival, analogue vacuum tube-based video cameras, Bujalski and cinematographer Matthias Grunsky deliver a work that really looks and sounds as if it belongs to another time. There is an innocence to the look of the film that we know now to be utterly at odds with the seismic social and technological changes that it anticipates. That innocence is accentuated by the film’s aesthetic and it is interesting to imagine how younger viewers will react to the film’s abstract wonder for clunky screens and dot-matrix monitors that would soon completely reconfigure and change our lives. As filmmaking becomes more and more reliant on effects and artificially generated images, it is encouraging to see directors like Bujalski reflecting on shifts in film and technology in general. That he does so in a film as witty and engaging as Computer Chess is all the more invigorating.
Watch the original trailer: