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New Release Review - Computer Chess

The brightest minds in the world of Computer Chess gather for a weekend tournament.

Directed by: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins, Gerald Peary


It's some point in the early eighties, and teams from America's top tech colleges have gathered in a dingy cat infested hotel for a computer chess tournament. The winning team will go on to compete against chess master Pat Henderson (Peary), who is cynical about the chances of ever being beaten by a computer. Also booked into the hotel for the same weekend is a convention based around fulfilling your potential.
I'm embarrassed to admit not having seen any of Andrew Bujalski's previous three feature films. That's something I hope to rectify in the future because, with less than two months of the year left, his latest, 'Computer Chess', is the best movie I've seen in 2013.
When I initially heard of its premise I was somewhat dismissive, presuming incorrectly that the film would take a cheap shot at the world it portrays, ("Look at these nerds, aren't they hilarious?"). Thankfully, Bujalski is above such condescension. His film is as much celebration as it is satire.
The scientific minds gathered may be socially awkward but they're as human as the rest of us. Chess master Henderson argues that technology can never replace humanity but he's missing the point that technology is a by-product of humanity, a physical manifestation of our will to evolve. Scientists aren't robots but we often think of them this way. When it comes to a battle between science and the soul, we immediately root for the soul. Anytime man is pitted against machine we cheer for man. The truth is, though, that to root for the machine is also to root for man because all machines are simply products of man. Nobody ever wants a human to lose to a computer but, as Bujalski's film shows, every computer has a team of very human programmers behind it.
Science is often considered soulless; some fail to see any romance in logic and facts. Bujalski exposes this fallacy in brilliant fashion by pitting his techies against a gathering of spiritual types, assembled in the hotel to "increase their true potential". In a fantastic scene, a shy and socially awkward programmer is accosted in the bedroom of a horny middle-aged couple. When asked how many squares are on a chess board by the wife, he instantly replies "64". "Don't you find that so limiting?" she patronizingly asks, to which he delivers the most brilliant and mild mannered smackdown in reply by explaining the infinite number of chess moves this number of squares allows for. "Maybe we're the squares," the husband replies.
No film-maker has ever been successful in imitating the film-making style of the late, great Robert Altman but 'Computer Chess' feels like some lost 1981 entry in Altman's ouevre. It employs Altman's great device of taking a bunch of characters who all share a common interest but gradually revealing how different they actually are. Bujalski gives us just the right amount of characterization, enough to make the characters feel genuine but leave us wanting to know more about them once the film ends. So strong are the characters that, ten minutes in, I felt like I knew these people beforehand, as though the film was some big screen spin-off from a long running TV show.
Computers. Chess. Black and white shot on eighties video. No recognizable actors. 'Computer Chess' won't attract a large audience but those who see it will instantly feel like members of a very privileged club.
9/10


Eric Hillis

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