Film Review: Computer Chess

by Gordon Elgart on July 26, 2013

I have no idea what to make of Computer Chess. This is what’s good and bad about it.

Computer Chess

The answer is off in the distance in Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess

Computer Chess is either a very smart movie that’s way over my head, or one of those movies that is trying to be very smart and missing the mark. It’s to its credit and detriment that I can’t tell. The film is shot by writer/director Andrew Bujalski in black and white, and is meant to look like an old VHS documentary. This effect fades in and out as needed, though, and like many mockumentaries, we start getting treated to standard camera angles and edits as the story calls for it.

The basic gist of the plot is that several teams of computer programmers – and one lone wolf – descend on a hotel (in what appears to be 1980 or so) to have their chess programs play a tournament against each other. The tournament takes place over several days, and we focus on the awkward lives of the participants as well as on the tournament itself.

What bugs  me about this movie is that same thing others might praise it for: it has a ton of plot lines that are left unexplored to their fullest. We get the hint of mystery, but never any solutions. Now, the movie comes straight out and tells you that the characters are meant to represent chess pieces, and the oddness of the movie is akin to the oddness of a chess game.  One character comes right out and accuses another of doing something, but we’re never given the answer. Is this like him saying “check” and the other character wiggling their way out of it? Maybe.

The best stuff is the very dry material, where the programmers are sitting around discussing artificial intelligence, discussing complex computer code, or participating in the tournament itself. The tournament director and chess grandmaster, played by Gerald Peary, is my absolute favorite. He really does feel like someone who believes that computers will never be as good as humans at anything. He’s perfect.

But when the movie tries to get into comedy, especially through the antics of Mike Papageorge (Myles Paige), a programmer who came by himself to compete, it’s less effective. Although the performances are better than might be expected from a no-name cast, the funny scenes simply aren’t funny. I just wanted them to go back to the weird mysteries and dry conversations.

Maybe that tells you what kind of chess player I am.


Computer Chess opens today, in SF at Opera Plaza and in Berkeley at the Shattuck Theaters.

Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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