By Don Simpson | February 28, 2013
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Writer: Andrew Bujalski
Starring: Kriss Schludermann, Tom Fletcher, Wiley Wiggins, Patrick Riester, Kevin Bewersdorf, Jim Lewis, Freddy Martinez, Cole Noppenberg, Myles Paige, Gerald Peary, James Curry, Bob Sabiston
Andrew Bukalski’s Computer Chess is exactly what I would imagine an immersive documentary about computer chess programmers circa 1980 to look like. Modeled loosely as a first person — dare I say “found footage” — narrative, Bujalski’s film documents a computer chess tournament a few years before computers are expected to conquer humans…at least within the realm of the 64 squares of the chess board. As if these programmers learned nothing from 2001: A Space Odyssey or Battlestar Galactica, they teach their respective team’s computer to play a board game that was developed centuries ago by humans, for humans.
To win at chess, one must be able to predict their opponent’s future moves; presumably these programmers are on the cusp of developing code that will allow computers to do just that, anticipate the decisions that a human will make in the future. Imagine the possibilities in military, political, financial and marketing strategizing if computers could accurately predict human behavior. Essentially, these hyper-intelligent men — and let’s not forget the one woman — are laying the groundwork for Artificial Intelligence. You might call it a god complex, their desire to develop a form of consciousness purely out of circuitry and code; Bujalski, however, doesn’t present us with a heavy-handed diatribe about computer programmers with god complexes, these are just a bunch of nerds who can effortlessly ramble on and on and on about technology to eye-glazing — and eye-rolling — proportions. Carbray (James Curry) is the perfect example of a programmer who seems to speak in a language that indecipherable to anyone but himself; the meandering linguistic smokescreen befuddles whoever is listening to him, rendering them powerless in debating his oblique hypotheses. It is the Computer Chess ensemble’s propensity for philosophizing that reminds me of Richard Linklater’s Slacker; but, whereas Linklater’s film ruminates upon the existential crises of humans, Bujalski’s film expounds upon the existential crises of synthetic consciousness.
Bujalski makes an interesting decision to juxtapose the technology-driven participants of the computer chess conference with the followers of a new age guru from Africa. The guru professes the significance of the human heart and soul; teaching his followers to be more open and loving to others. The computer chess teams are secretive and competitive; they are focused on exploring a mechanical consciousness rather than looking inward towards their own. This tactic may seem a bit too contrived; that is until the two groups interact with each other, then Bujalski’s approach makes a lot more sense.
Computer Chess carefully balances high-minded philosophy with comedy and pathos. All the while, Bujalski achieves an ultimate level of realism by enlisting a cast of computer savvy actors and non-actors who at least seem like they know what they’re rambling on about. The production design is the real show-stopper though; this is a masterfully stylized film that is saturated with authenticity.