With its advance indie buzz at a pretty impressive level of strength earlier this year, I was pretty certain that “Computer Chess” was going to be a documentary right until I popped the disc in my player. It’s not, but what it is may just defy classification for most viewers, even though it’s already been firmly ensconced in the maverick “mumblecore” sub-genre, along with Andrew Bujalski’s other film work(you can do the research yourself, but Mr. Bujalski is considered the “Godfather of Mumblecore”). What “Computer Chess” is, is an exhilarating, one-of-a-kind experience that plays like a hybrid of “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Pirates of Silicon Valley”. Believe me—it’s much more exciting than it sounds. The look of the film is so distinctive and remarkably inventive, that it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve never seen anything like it. And until it gets increasingly esoteric as the plot gets more complicated, it’s easily one of the best films of the year. It still may be, as I predict that repeat viewings will serve to clear up any type of accidental confusion or intentional diversion. Oh, and it’s pretty damn hilarious too.
The main thrust of “Computer Chess” involves a gathering of late 1970’s(?)computer geeks, and their annual convention to create the most up-to-date chess game program available, with the intention of pitting “man versus machine” for big money and prizes. Much talk is devoted to the eventual, inevitable progression to actual artificial intelligence. There are no “big” stars in the film(unless you consider Wiley Wiggins from “Dazed and Confused” and “Waking Life” big)which enhances that documentary(or even “found-footage” seems appropriate)feel. A big funny-bone bonus for the audience is that Mr. Bujalski’s incredibly deft script, chooses the path of a somewhat disruptive “new-age” spiritual convention happening in the very same hotel. This leads to some uproarious encounters, especially when an amorous middle-age couple attempts to seduce a young computer geek into a menage a trois. The film also gets plenty of knee-slapping mileage out of actress Robin Schwartz, being the first ever female programmer to enter into the annual competition. And that despite her bespectacled, anti-glamorous appearance(think Adrian, early in the first “Rocky” movie), she becomes the object of desire for a number of her fellow brainiacs. There’s even a late film “conversation” between man and machine that is as creepy as it is exhilarating.
Bujalski has pulled off something astonishingly unique here, and I have to label this a must-see for lovers of the unconventional. Of course, it is my hope that that includes the majority of my regular readers. “Computer Chess” was apparently shot on vintage black-and-white Sony tube cameras and the style is infectious(see trailer above). It also boasts the casting of renowned Boston-based film critic, Gerald Peary, in the role of Henderson, a sort-of grand marshal of the computer convention, who’s sporadic speeches reveal a bit of condescension and a certain level of playful arrogance. “Computer Chess” looks fantastic, and the retro-geek clothing/hairstyles are wonderfully inspired and fitting. The first half is easily one of my favorite chunks of cinema from 2013, and the latter portion is—at the very least—full of some terrific surprises. Plus, I don’t know if this is an actual recommendation, but it had me pining for the simple days of “Pong”. Come to think of it, in many ways, that should be considered an absolute positive endorsement. Grade: A-