Starring: Patrick Riester, Wiley Wiggins, Myles Paige, Robin Schwartz.
Running Time: 92 minutes.
Synopsis: A group of computer chess enthusiasts meet at a convention pitting various computer programmes against each other. But is there more to their artificial intelligence than even the programmers think?
COMPUTER CHESS is a love letter to a bygone era of computing, maths and chess. Director Andrew Bujalski clearly has a great deal of affection for his subjects, themes and characters, and certainly has a vision he wants to convey. Alas, what we receive is pretentiousness so confounding and lost in its own mythology that any potential joy has been lost. Or checkmated, if you will.
If you’ve heard of this film and are expecting The IT Crowd by way of THIS IS SPINAL TAP, for the love of God don’t go. Think more along the lines of Darren Aronofsky’s PI, but with less humour. There are sequences practically wriggling with creepiness which would be great if COMPUTER CHESS was billed as a horror movie or a psychological thriller, which really is how it comes across. Instead it’s promoted as a comedy, and while there are points where you can see the director/writer is going for a joke, the overall coldness practically forbids any laughter.
Bujalski wants to explore the narrative opposition of humanity vs artificial intelligence which has great potential for an existential drama and would have made for a better film. The truncated editing, with its peculiar cuts and repetition implies there is a ghost in the machine, a sense that this documentary is not entirely ruled by human hands. Again, as a horror film, this would have been fascinating. Instead, it seems Bujalski wanted to make a comedy, but during the shoot stayed up every night watching David Lynch films while trying to swallow a mid-1980’s Apple Macintosh.
That’s not to say you can’t mix genres, but this is a mess. It’s not even anti-comedy, exemplified by Tim and Eric or in the unsettlingly brilliant series Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule. The look and feel of that show in particular, with its editing and central performance, seems to be what Bujalski was trying to achieve (check it out). The cast are what elevates the film, with their naturalistic awkwardness keeping things anchored in some much-needed relatability. Patrick Riester and Robin Schwartz are particularly watchable and hopefully this will lead to further opportunities for them and the rest of the ensemble.
Experimental filmmakers should never be criticised for trying something new and Bujalski certainly delivers an original film. However, what could have been a bold and striking piece of work feels more like a chore.