This film by writer/director Andrew Bujalski took me by surprise. I was expecting a relatively straight-forward reflection on a fictional, but realistic, 1980s computer science competition to develop a chess program that can beat a chess master.  I was shocked and delighted to discover that Computer Chess is much more like a mockumentary, in the tradition of Best in Show, with a strange, sci-fi element reminiscent of Primer. This film is intelligent to its core, testing its limitations with brave camera work and a Lynch-worthy meta-narrative.

The Players:

  • Writer/Director: Andrew Bujalski
  • Cinematographer: Matthias Grunsky
  • Production Designer: Michael Bricker
  • Starring: Patrick Riester, Myles Paige, James Curry, Robin Schwartz, Gerald Peary, Wiley Wiggins

Synopsis:

The 1980 computer chess competition brings together the best and brightest computer programmers to pit their programs against each other in the hopes of developing a program capable of beating a human chess master.  The eccentric competitors find themselves in awkward conversations and social situations that reveal their underlying similarities, as well as their essential differences of opinion about chess and life. Overlaid with an examination of technological innovation in the modern world,  Bujalski’s film is funny, poignant, and forward-thinking.

The Good:

This film is MY kind of weird. Its mixture of straight-faced humor and surrealist mini-vignettes manages to be both believable and fantastical. One thing that makes that possible is the look of the film, which takes a little getting used to. Shot using early PortoPak video techniques in [mostly] black and white and with an impeccably detail-oriented production, the work has a striking retro look that had me thinking it was found footage for the first five minutes. The combination of the aesthetic, the time period in which it is set, and the strangeness of the events manages a kind of equilibrium that wouldn’t have been possible had it been shot in high-def.

The Bad:

In general, the pace is steady and agreeable. However, there were some drawn out scenes that didn’t quite hit the mark, and the longer the shot lingered, the more that fact was reenforced. These were definitely in the minority, but when they did happen, I felt impatient and squirmy.

Overall:

This has been the best surprise I’ve had at Sundance so far; I walked in, was confused for a few minutes about what I was seeing, and then was positively swept away by the comedy and the strangeness that had me grinning from ear to ear, all the way through to the twisted ending.

Rating: 8/10