Elite programmers meet up in a mid-range hotel in 1980 to pit their computers against each other in a chess tournament, and hijinks ensue.
Shot in black-and-white video, the opening moments of Computer Chess are so realistic that I took them for archival footage. The hulking machines playing against each other may not be the room-sized, punch-card variety, but they are hilariously unwieldy to 21st century eyes. Everything about Computer Chess is dated, and purposely so. This nostalgia is part of what makes the film work. It’s about a future that has already happened.
Über nerds talking about computer programming, artificial intelligence and chess should be stultifying, but there is something mesmerizing about this strange film. The competing teams are from varied backgrounds: some are academics at MIT and Caltech, others are from big business, and still others are self-financed. They all have different philosophies driving their programming ethos, and they debate these differences of opinion vociferously. They are also all incredibly competitive, and each team desperately want to win the tournament. It’s about being the victorious thinker. There is a sublimated alpha male culture at work that creates real tension and humor, because their swagger keeps getting tripped up by their awkwardness.
When they gather at night in their hotel rooms, they discuss thought-provoking ideas and problems (many of which I can’t even pretend to understand), and there is something about their earnestness that is unexpectedly moving and galvanizing. Their determined optimism is the thing that changes the world. All you have to do is pull out your smartphone to realise that, not only have many of the problems they’re discussing been solved, the solutions fit in our pockets.
The computer nerds aren’t alone in the hotel and have some hilarious run-ins with a self-help group. Both parties want to raise consciousness — human consciousness on one hand, the consciousness of machines on the other, and the questions they consider overlap. What does it mean to be self-aware? Can a computer be self-aware? If it is, is it a slave? The surreal world director, Andrew Bujalski, creates allows for an off-kilter, unconventional discussion of these issues.
Computer Chess is original, unpredictable, and bizarrely hypnotic. I highly recommend it.