Saturday, September 14, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Computer Chess

Though it's a landmark moment that's now long since passed, before Garry Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue in 1997, developing a computer that could best a human chess Grandmaster was one of the loftiest goals for generations of programmers and artificial intelligence researchers. The philosophical question at the heart of their quest was whether raw number-crunching power could ever compete with the uniquely human lateral thinking and creativity the game was believed to require and, if so, what kind of future could humanity have. These heady themes are omnipresent in writer-director Andrew Bujalski's new Computer Chess, permeating every conversation, but they ultimately serve more as a backdrop for his peculiar brand of offbeat comedy than the subject of any substantive exploration.

The film takes you back to an unspecified time in the early 1980s, as an oddball assortment of scientists and academics converge on a drab hotel for a weekend-long tournament pitting their chess-playing programs against one another. Though Bujalski has an eye for accuracy in regards to his retro setting, from the dorky clothes to the charmingly clunky computers, the film departs from reality fairly quickly, following the surreal goings-on between matches, including run-ins with paranoid drug peddlers, the kooky couples therapy retreat also utilizing the conference room, and a sentient, suicidal machine. None of these subplots are pursued with any real zeal, the hotel's mysterious cat infestation or the Pentagon's interest in the competition leaving a lot of intentionally unanswered questions.

Computer Chess won't appeal to every taste, the humor being of the supremely awkward, stuttering sort that earned Bujalski, director of Funny Ha Ha and Beeswax, recognition as the father of mumblecore, and its look, a grainy (mostly) black-and-white video appropriate to the era it's depicting without going full-on mockumentary, is purposefully cheap and sometimes feels more like an aesthetic exercise than a movie, but it's not without its own goofy appeal, which lies mostly in the convincing performances from perfectly cast unknown actors and the light, dreamlike feel. It's quirky strangeness, its technophile nostalgia and, at 90 minutes, its relative brevity, should serve it well once it hits Netflix, but as theatre fare, it's probably not worth leaving the house for. 

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