Appellate Judge James A. Stewart was once beaten at chess by an abacus.
"So the computers play chess versus other computers?"
Today, the computers might have to play other computers, since there are no chess challenges left from humans. There's a chess game on the computer I write this review with that I gave up on because it beats me every time. I'm no grandmaster, but it's still a sign of advances in programming.
Computer Chess, set sometime before the mentioned 1984, ribs the guys—and one lone gal—who worked toward that breakthrough.
Facts of the Case
Computer Chess is set at a computer chess tournament, in which the computers—and their companion humans—vie for the right to take on a human expert. Their numbers are small, so the humans battle for space with a couples encounter group and a bunch of stray cats as they debate the potential of their work (Could you blow up the world with a chess program?).
You probably won't know what to make at first of the black-and-white footage of programmers talking about their work. In fact, you'll notice one guy in the crowd shifting in his seat, apparently bored by the talk of algorithms and faster hardware speeds. That's the first discordant touch that lets you know the answer: This is a mockumentary.
If you were really sharp, the fact that the picture is really sharp and professional, even with the on-purpose glitches, would let you know as well. The sound quality as characters ramble and mumble is good, too. Director Andrew Bujarski (Mutual Appreciation) puts a movie together with skill.
You don't get to know all the characters; the nebbish who's obsessed with his theory of why he lost and the guy who doesn't have a room are the ones who get the most attention. That's part of Bujarski's design, but it's distracting—at least if you try to figure out what's going on. If you don't bother to figure things out, you'll smile at some of the oddities, such as a couples exercise involving loaves of bread or a fight over a conference room.
I suspect, though, that to appreciate the film totally would take the eye of someone who's been around computers and their people quite a bit. Thus, Bujarski brings in Deep Blue programmer Murray Campbell, who was part of the project that finally beat chess champion Gary Kasparov (and later, Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings). A veteran of eleven tournaments, Campbell lets viewers know what's real and what's spoof, making the film a little more comprehensible. There are still gags—like an infinite loop—that seem to go better with his software background, but he helps.
There's also a "bonus commentary from an enthusiastic stoner," who identifies himself as Kent Osborne. He pretends to believe that the opening footage is archival, and generally sounds naive, if not actually stoned. This one just reminded me that I wasn't sure for the first few minutes myself, and thus didn't help the director's case.
Bujarski also provides animated recaps of four chess matches he researched, video of personal computers, a tutorial on the 1969 Sony AVG-3200 video camera used in his film, three trailers, and two comic pitches for his "kind of weird little period piece."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's no definite setting. You know that it's Austin, Texas, from the credits, and you know it's before 1984, because that upcoming date is mentioned in the movie, but IMDb says it's 1980s and Martin Campbell seemed to think it was a few years earlier.
If you're bored, you might start looking around for all the low-tech gear, such as TVs with aerials, overhead projectors, and actual room keys.
There's also pot smoking and brief nudity.
The commentaries, good and bad, did one thing that Andrew Bujarski wanted: they made me watch Computer Chess three times. Thus, I can tell you that the movie itself gets a touch better with each viewing. It's still arcane, so you might prefer to be an actual computer programmer while watching (I'm not). If you do enjoy it, you'll want to own a copy and watch it a lot. If you're not sure, you can check it out on Amazon Instant Video.
In the mock pitches, Bujarski lets you know he's aiming for cult status with Computer Chess, and he'll probably get some.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Kino Lorber
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