Even though the film is shot on ancient black-and-white video cameras with tubes in them that can’t even handle sunlight, Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess” has an air of familiarity to it. It depicts a chess tournament in a non-descript hotel, likely somewhere in the Midwest, where the players are computer programmers, each with their own chess program, and the prize is $7,500 and the chance to play a game against the doddering, almost oblivious Professor Henderson (film critic Gerald Peary). The film opens like a mockumentary, with a panel lined with professors who do nothing but bloviate hot air about the future of technology. The film cuts to the competitors in the audience, zombified and trying to stay awake. Bujalski is keenly aware of how dull this man vs. technology struggle can be on the surface.
This film is set in the early 1980’s so the nerds that populate this lo-fi universe are still 30 years away from “geek chic.” Thrift store polos, thick aviator eyeglasses and social graces only a few steps above Raymond Babbitt rule this community. We get to know the MIT team (who make waves by having the tournament’s first-ever female participant), and the Cal Tech team, whose computer defies its own programming and intentionally loses chess matches. And then there’s Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), who personifies smug amusement but also arrives broke, roomless and with a penchant for stealing pills.
I have not seen Bujalski’s previous films, most notably his 2003 film “Funny Ha Ha,” which is considered a key text in the “mumblecore” sub-genre (for those who don’t know, mumblecore makes higher-profile independent films look like “Ben-Hur” in comparison, with more stuttering). And for a while, “Computer Chess” mines the comedy from this tournament in the hilariously designed computers (some look like mini-refrigerators, others look like revved-up typewriters), the spectacularly tone-deaf commentary from the organizers, and Papageorge’s misaventures in trying to find a place to stay. It’s a story of computers that have more humanity than the players.
And then things get weird. Really weird.
The Cal Tech team’s computer betrays it’s own algorithm and loses matches at will, so much so that the team forfeits a match before making a single move. A group of middle-aged couples arrive at the hotel as part of a self-help seminar that consists of digging through bread and re-enacting human birth in an attempt to reconnect with each other. The filmmaking, already odd in its approach thanks to cameras that make your childhood Christmas home movies look like they were shot by Roger Deakins, gets even more and more screwy. The editing becomes faster and more haphazard, images are randomly super-imposed, and scenes get repeated like a vinyl record with a stuck needle, or even shift into color. Also, an army of cats show up and commandeer their own hotel room. And this is all before two members of the couple’s therapy group try to seduce Peter (Patrick Riester), the timid virgin from the Cal Tech team, into a menage a trois.
As these scenarios pile up and the film’s themes of man vs. technology become more twisted and infused with what little narrative the film has, “Computer Chess” doesn’t just go off the reservation, it goes off “Planet Earth.” Bujalski puts up a front of techno-parody only to indulge his inner David Lynch and unleash a plethora of ghosts into this run-down machine. But this isn’t a horror film. As it becomes more and more of a mindfuck, leading up to a shocking, bizarre and hilarious final confrontation between Peter and a mysterious woman, “Computer Chess” cements itself as one of 2013’s most surprising, daring and altogether fascinating films. Andrew Bujalski flips the script by setting speculative science-fiction in the recent past, by using technology that’s even older. “Computer Chess” starts out as a lark and becomes a strange thoughtful exploration into what computers are built to do, whether it’s to play chess or reach a point of self-awareness and develop a soul, and whether human connections are permanently out of whack or doomed altogether. The film’s surreal pleasures are best left unspoiled, but I will say that in this hotel, which starts to feel like the last place in the universe, “Computer Chess” shows us that artificial intelligence may not stay artificial for long.