“War is death. Hell is pain. Chess is Victory.”
Writer/director Andrew Bujalaski‘s lo-fi Computer Chess is an intriguing period piece curio depicting a programming convention of brilliant minds engaging in a five-round competition that pits their artificial intelligences against each other’s at the titular, strategic board game. Although we see tournament organizer Pat Henderson (Gerald Peary) has hired a filmographer (Kevin Bewersdorf) for the proceedings, our vantage point is outside that camera as a fly on the wall within their hotel. Shifting room to room spying on students, tech geeks, and recreational drug users, Bujalski ensures we catch glimpses of the eccentric cast in all manner of awkward situations helped by another group of middle aged suburban hippies on a sort of meditative, sexually uninhibited retreat. And if that’s not enough, the story finds itself deciding to go supernaturally surreal as well.
Its a unique subject matter with the director’s choice to shoot on a 1968 tube video camera called the Sony AVC 3260 proving an inspired one towards achieving its desired 1980s aesthetic. The technology allows the project to be shot under extreme budgetary constraints while also providing a key visual element for the authenticity of the whole—it’s archaic quirks giving the cinematographer plenty of latitude for experimentation as well as struggles to overcome. The use of many first-time/non- actors comes with its advantages and disadvantages too as the cast’s inexperience is both blatantly obvious and possessed by a certain charm I’ll admit took me by surprise. There’s just something about their uncomfortable stage presence that adds to the social awkwardness we inherently expect computer science nerds like them to have in spades.
A part of this fun too is the use of PDP-11 kits, overhead projectors, and costuming that transports us into their hotel conference as though through a time warp. The technical jargon can get a bit extreme, but we don’t ever really need to understand the logistics of what they’re all saying as long as we follow the ideas about artificial intelligence taking over the world. In fact, two fans—John (Jim Lewis) and Freddy (Freddy Martinez)—are only there to get in on what they say is the ground floor of World War III. With The Terminator not being released until 1984, seeing this attitude and moral quandary at its germination phase is one more underlying detail to show what this period in time meant in the grand scheme of technological advancement.
Bujalski sprinkles rumors and speculation about government contracts while also setting up conspiracy theories that the Tsar team’s leader Tom Schoesser (Gordon Kindlmann) may have purposely sabotaged his chances at a repeat victory in order to collect data to better support his program’s real world application. It’s not long before what started as a bunch of serious twenty and thirty-somethings playing a game becomes something with much larger ambition. Whether Tsar member Martin Beuscher’s (Wiley Wiggins) unwaveringly stoic pose that obviously holds some secrets or freelancer Michael Papageorge’s (Myles Paige) egotistical oaf trying to find a room to sleep in while potentially also looking to steal his competitor’s programming, there is a charged atmosphere throughout hypothesizing much more is at stake than the $7,500 purse.
The issue Computer Chess runs into as a result, though, is that its choice to go darker comes too late in the game to be truly effective. Bujalski does a good job keeping things light at the start while also sharing key expository information by letting the relationships between contestants stay somewhat tense and frosty when in combat and loose and drug-fueled when hanging out. Then he adds African guru Keneiloe (Tishuan Scott) and his group of couples opening their minds by connecting with one another through warm loaves of bread to make things sillier. I get the point of contrasting the human collective against artificial intelligence’s inevitable progression towards some sort of Borg hive mind, but the tone is such that the comparison comes off as more parody than sinister agenda.
So when the final act begins to shut off that humor by saying one team might already have tapped into the science fictional concept of living, cognizant code, it’s hard to shift with it. You want to continue laughing at the absurdity but find the ramifications of what Bujalski is positing have gone beyond mere easy jokes. The symbolism he adds turns an already experimental film into full-blow Avant Garde as one sequence acquires color, another unsyncs image and sound, and one more devolves into a disorienting merry-go-round of cuts. I started to be reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and its depiction of insanity, not knowing if what I watched was courtesy of Bujalski’s presence as the storyteller or quasi-lead character Peter Bishton’s (Patrick Riester) slow realization of the power they are wielding.
I wonder what Computer Chess would be if it embraced this psychological intrigue above the more stereotypical laughs it earns in the interim. Between the constant acknowledgment that the tournament has a female team member (Robin Schwartz’s Shelly); Papageorge’s evening escapades amidst a growing number of cats in the hotel; existential exchanges between programmer Bob Sabiston’s McVey and the blue-chip John and Freddy; or swinging couple Dave (Chris Doubek) and Pauline (Cyndi Williams) seducing innocently young Peter, there’s a lot of comedy to soak up and enjoy. However, watching Peter’s evolution from silent partner to shyly vocal believer in the impossible is a much more fascinating plot thread to dive into. The slice of life atmosphere around him is cool on the surface, but this boy’s discoveries become the more captivating hook.
 Wiley Wiggins as Martin Beuscher and Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton in COMPUTER CHESS, a film by Andrew Bujalski.
 Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton in Computer Chess, a film by Andrew Bujalski.
Credit: Kino Lorber, Inc