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Computer Chess

An artificially intelligent comedy from the director of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation.

What was the world like before? That is the question every period movie contemplates and seeks to answer by means of historically appropriate props, costumes and habits of speech. Part of the fun for viewers lies in imagining (or remembering) how anyone managed without our helpful gadgets and gizmos of today.

Poster art for Computer ChessSome of them were trying to invent them, of course. Those are the people represented in Computer Chess, Andrew Bujalski’s peculiar and sneakily brilliant new film. It takes place in 1980 at an annual gathering where teams of nerds compete to see which of their programs can do better against a human chess player.

The grandmaster in residence, who is also the master of ceremonies, is played by film critic Gerald Peary. His opponents, who are also his protégés, are an anthology of bad haircuts, poly-cotton-blend shirts and ugly shoes. These guys – and the one woman in their company (Robin Schwartz), whose gender is frequently noted by colleagues unable to resist condescending to or hitting on her, sometimes simultaneously – deserve our respect. They are the pioneers of our digital present, Vikings who bravely made landfall on the now familiar shores of the future.

Mr. Bujalski shoots their interactions in state-of-the-art late-’70s analog, which is to say in bracingly hideous and therefore strangely beautiful black-and-white video.

The dreary visuals are matched by the setting, a nondescript hotel that’s hosting both the computer chess tournament and a sex-tinged group therapy retreat. The encounter between geeks and seekers generates some fine comic moments – as when an earnest young code writer (Patrick Riester) falls into the clutches of a swinging older couple (Chris Doubek and Cyndi Williams) – and an intriguing sociological connection.

Part of the humour of the film lies in the wondrous obsolescence it beholds. Each chess team arrives with cumbersome monitors and hard drives the size of small refrigerators, all of it far less powerful than the cellphone in a given viewer’s pocket.

Still, the superficially distant reality of Computer Chess is recognizably our own. The personalities of the programmers are refreshingly idiosyncratic, playing against easy stereotypes. There is a fine line between genius and fraud, and between inspiration and error. And there are worries about the dystopian path on which these tireless hackers may be leading the rest of us, as intense arguments take place after hours about the possibility that the machines will eventually take over.

Those of us watching, of course, know that they have, but Mr. Bujalski is not one for cheap shots or easy jokes at the expense of these serious souls who, if they were real, might still be around to say they told us so. Artificial intelligence remains an intoxicating theory and a heady possibility, about which I am hardly qualified to speak. But I do know real filmmaking intelligence when I see it.

– A.O. Scott, The New York Times

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