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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Computer Chess review (London Film Festival)

Computer Chess green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Dryly humorous and wonderfully weird, this is a preternaturally mundane evocation of early 80s nerdery and an almost scary peek at the history of AI.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Eighties nostalgia has never been so deeply… odd. The first oddness comes in how mundane — in a dryly humorous way — Computer Chess’s evocation of the early 1980s is: shot in black-and-white with video equipment from the era (or a remarkable simulation of such), it positively reeks of pre-YouTube visual geekery. But the powerful — and wonderfully weird — nerdery is in the story: in a depressing cheap hotel, small bands of programmers from various universities and corporations haul in their “portable” computers for their annual weekend adventure of putting their code to the test in games of chess. And this year? “We have a lady who’s competing,” announces the (male) host to (all male minus one) crowd for the mockumentary camera. They also have a couples’ encounter group vying for space in their meeting room, and touchy-feely-sexy truly does not snuggle up well with debates about AI and all-night debugging sessions.

But just when you think that writer-director Andrew Bujalski and his scarily retro-accurate cast — shoutouts to Patrick Riester as the shy Peter (who is, however, unwittingly canny in engaging with the alien female), and Myles Paige as the desperately unsuave Papageorge — have gotten about as preternaturally ordinary in their re-creation of the era as they can, up pops a surreal, almost horrifying touch here and there… perhaps to remind us that this is not, in fact, found footage from 1983. And yet, the scariest thing of all could be how dead-on this all is, right down to the fact that awkward young men in ill-fitting polyester gave birth to the technological world around us today. And that mysterious visitor who has crashed the late-night rap session and is probing these guys for their ideas on artificial intelligence… is he from the Pentagon?

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

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Computer Chess (2013) | directed by Andrew Bujalski
US/Can release: Jul 17 2013
UK/Ire release: Nov 22 2013

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 15 (contains one scene of sexualised nudity)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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