An alumni of the mumblecore school for young American filmmakers, Andrew Bujalski is generally regarded as having made the first ‘official’ film of this demonstrably divisive sub-genre with Funny Ha Ha (2002). His fourth feature, Computer Chess (2013), successfully utilises this minimal and heavily naturalistic approach to tell the tale of a fictional chess competition between competitive computer programmers in the early 1980s. It may only be recent history, but in this tablet-obsessed world the sight of a computer the size of a washing machine being wheeled around for chess feels truly ancient.
The rise of technology has been so dramatic that it’s hard to imagine a time when nerdy college graduates dreamt of the day when they could develop a computer code capable of defeating a human being at chess. We observe the small handful of teams competing in this two-handed game of strategy, each one desperate for their hard work and mathematical supremacy to be crowned the greatest. However, there can only be one winner, and with systems crashing as well as a number of external difficulties seeping into the competition, it remains unclear who will be declared this year’s champion. Shot through a grainy, distorted black and white film stock, Computer Chess is a warm-hearted, incredibly genial journey back in time.
Opening to a brief and highly amusing series of press conferences held before the competition, it’s clear that this battle of minds and machines is going to make for a jocular experience. Thankfully, Bujalski’s latest undoubtedly is, with these methodical matches surrounded by twee period features and costumes that give the film’s action the feel of a long-forgotten documentary. If only these fascinating series of nerdy encounters could have lasted a little bit longer. Narrative sidesteps aside, there remains plenty to be enjoyed in Bujalski’s 80s-set ode to those who chose to trial computer code rather than worry about the Cold War.
The amateur acting and lo-fi aesthetic of mumblecore are perfectly suited to this tale of computer geekery, capturing the character’s frustrations towards solving their own internal anguish by the use of an arithmetical code – with the stunted, naturalistic script befitting the bumbling and social awkward mannerisms of these freckly, pale boffins. A full-on nerdgasm for anyone with a passing interest in chess, computing or the aesthetics of lo-fi indie cinema, Computer Chess is both a wonderfully quirky period piece and a thoroughly enjoyable, curio with an abundance of charm and wit.
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