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Set over the course of a weekend tournament for chess software programmers thirty-some years ago, Computer Chess transports viewers to a nostalgic moment when the contest between technology and the human spirit seemed a little more up for grabs. We get to know the eccentric geniuses possessed of the vision to teach a metal box to defeat man, literally, at his own game, laying the groundwork for artificial intelligence as we know it and will come to know it in the future. Written by
If you're sick & Atari'd of forgettable films, you should add this to your Coleco-tion
"Computer Chess" is a trip. It's a trip back to the 80s when nerds reigned supreme (if only in their rather limited social circles). More than that, it's a mind trip of dweebish proportions. We'll get to that later. First a few things you should know: The movie is almost entirely in black & white, rather grainy & unappealing video (4:3). This can be somewhat tiring on the eyes, compared to the 1080p digital glory we're accustomed to. But before you pass judgment you should know that the filmmakers purposely used an old Sony AVC-3260 b&w tube camera from the 70s. Director of photography Matthias Grunsky explains:
"These tubes also have a very specific soft character, which would not be easy to recreate in post. The cameras had electronic issues and sometimes would generate electronic noise when touching the camera body or the lens. All these artifacts combined add a transcendental character to the image and help express the sometimes unexplainable things that happen between man and computer in our story."
So right off the bat you can see that the film is artistically motivated. Whether you decide that it has significance, or whether you think it's just an annoying gimmick is up to you.
The second thing you should be ready for is near the end it makes a leap of logic concerning technology, in particular, artificial intelligence. Normally I don't care when science fiction films go off the deep end like that, but this film is closer to historical fiction (and does a great job, except for this one glitch). Overall it presents the rather ho-hum reality of technology in the 80s, and the humor is that 80s technology sucked! That's why it came as a surprise in one scene where suddenly technology surpasses what we could even hope for today. But I admit that plot twist is essential to the story & message. So, my fellow pocket-protected geeks in the audience, try to take it in stride.
The rest of the movie gets nothing but high praise from me. It's surprisingly accurate, and if you haven't guessed, I was an 80s kid who grew up thinking "Pong" and the Radio Shack TRS-80 were the greatest things the human race could ever achieve... so I knew that mentality well. How hilariously ironic it is to watch a movie about a conference of nerds who are lifelong-obsessed with creating a computer chess simulator which, today, wouldn't hold the average gamer's attention span past the welcome screen. But irony is the backbone of this film, and if you enjoy ironic comedies like "Ed Wood" (about the worst director who ever lived), "Best in Show" (about a bunch of freaks competing for whose dog is prettiest) or the unintentionally hilarious documentary "Anvil! The Story of Anvil" (about an 80s metal band called... can you guess?), then I think you'll get a real kick out of "Computer Chess".
An extra little push over the cliff, which some audiences may not like but I found intriguing, is the hyper stylistic approach to cinematography. Although visually bland (black & white video), there are some artistic tricks that the director used. For example, despite the nuts & bolts visual presentation, the director achieved a degree of surrealism by using quirky edits (unexpected, disorienting jump cuts) as well as deliberate audio synch mismatches. This compliments the rather surreal turn of events that occur--things that make you wonder "WTF just happened?" Some scenes seem totally random and disconnected, but memorable nonetheless. And without spoiling anything, I can say that "Computer Chess" has one of the most WTF endings I've ever seen.
Definitely not for audiences wanting to be dazzled by theatrics, visuals and fantastic plots, "Computer Chess" is a very minimalistic yet highly entertaining step back in time, giving us the rare opportunity to appreciate the absurdity of "hi-tech" in hindsight. The whole film happens over the course of 3 days in a roadside motel. But it's still a masterpiece. Sort of like the famous minimalist film "Das Boot" shot entirely in a submarine but full of depth & meaning, this movie shot in 2 or 3 rooms with no props but a bunch of dusty old computers really packs a lot. Maybe an alternate title for this nerdfest could be "DOS BOOT".
Hey, laugh it up. I worked a long time on that stupid pun.
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