Nerd and geek culture has really dominated over the last few years. Video games are for everyone now, we all use computers everyday, and comic book heroes dominate the box office. But there was a time when being a nerd meant being on the bottom wrung of the social ladder. And that time is meticulously recreated in Computer Chess.
The opening is a series of talking head vox pops with the nerdiest of nerds you ever did see. They’re at some sort of 80s conference or competition where computer programmers are going up against each other, all having designed computer software to play each other in chess. The vox pops then cut to a press conference where the nerds start to get a little aggressive with each other.
This setup is so effective and these people are so convincing as marble mouthed nerds, it’s really jarring when it all of a sudden cuts to a more traditional movie style of filming and editing, and you realise you’re watching actors, performing a script.
What follows is exactly what’s setup in the opening minutes. A heap of nerds, spending a weekend in hotel rooms and conference rooms, making their computers play chess against each other. And amongst conversations about artificial intelligence and the implications these silly chess games may have for military use, it never really leads to anything bigger. But that’s totally fine, because it’s entertaining the entire time.
There’s also a different conference going on in the same hotel involving some weird cult or religion. But I have no idea what it was meant to mean on a bigger, thematic level. Much like the cats. The cats in this hotel are more numerous and inexplicable than those in Inside Llewyn Davis. Even if I didn’t fully get what the Coen brothers were saying with their cats, I have no doubt they knew. Here, I have a feeling writer, director Andrew Bujalski piles on the cats in Computer Chess for the pure visual weirdness of it.
Every character in Computer Chess seems like they have some sort of hidden agenda. Every time someone new approaches another character out of the blue, it feels like they’re trying to gain some sort of knowledge they’ll then use for nefarious means. And again. none of this really leads anywhere, while somehow remaining entertaining and never frustrating.
Portions of Computer Chess remind me a little of Kevin Smith’s 1994 debut Clerks. Not in the use of low budget black and white, but in the sometimes stilted, almost charmingly amateur performances of some of the actors… The occasional uncomfortably darting eyes of one actor not knowing what do while their scene mate has lines and they’re waiting to jump in with their own dialogue.
Shot on video cameras from the era and using a boxy aspect ratio like an old, square TV, the 80s vibe is unbelievably realistic and natural. The costumes, facial hair and glasses would have looked like a comedy sketch if Computer Chess was filmed on crisp, modern digital. But here, it just seems like the camera was lucky enough to catch these actual 80s nerds in their natural 80s habitat.
All I knew about Computer Chess before watching it was, that it was a tiny budget indie that ended up on the ‘Best Of’ list of more than a few critics and websites I generally trust. I don’t know much more after watching it, except that I enjoyed it, and that I have no idea why.