SXSW 2013: ‘Computer Chess’ Review


Film Pulse Score

Release Date:   TBD
MPAA Rating:   Not Rated
Director:   Andrew Bujalski
Film Pulse Score:   2/10


The new film from Andrew Bujalski, writer/director of Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, is a strange beast filled with bizarre, dull and bizarrely dull occurrences set in a tedious, monochromatic ’80s drabscape. I’m not sure if Bujalski’s Computer Chess is an awkward existential comedy or an endurance test of one’s patience, or both. The film is set in the world of chess software programmers, circa 1980, as they converge on a dinky hotel to challenge one another in a battle of machines. Whose code will reign triumphant? And, is it capable of defeating a human being or a person even?

Computer Chess does capture the essence of these nerdy programmers complete with a peculiar unification – confidence in their knowledge and skills coupled with nervousness and a general lack of a social skill set. The film is a series of long-winded dialogues filled with technical jargon and pontificating with an occasional splash of the surreal. The discussions are the most taxing part of Computer Chess, delivered in monotone with a lack of enthusiasm; it really is the same as watching a staff member with no film-making experience documenting a 1980s computer chess tournament with an old-school video camera. Not sure how exciting that sounds, but credit should given to Bujalski for capturing that aesthetic, even though, it is an non-entertaining one.

The actors, themselves, and their performances blend perfectly with the production style. They come across as real computer programmers from 1980 with relatively no charisma, sense of humor or charm. Sure, the constant bouts of anxiety and social failings intermittently provide some humor and charm, but 92 minutes of this proves to be laborious. Especially when there is nothing in the cinematography department to, at least, provide a respite. There are some performances of note, in a way, Wiley Wiggins as Beuscher – the frustratingly confused programmer that cannot figure out what his machine, Tsar 3.0, is trying to accomplish. Patrick Riester as Peter, Beuscher’s teammate, the intelligent underling who possesses essentially no social skills whatsoever, unless being uncomfortably nervous counts. The last being, Chris Doubek (who I think was in every film at SXSW) as Dave, who with his wife is attending a seminar/workshop on new-age living, re-birth or whatever the hell it was.

Bujalski’s Computer Chess is an interesting idea and definitely a passion project for the director; so much research and time went into this film including using real-life chess matches as reference points. Bujalski’s film seems like it is made, specifically, for a special audience; maybe for viewers that have an intense interest in programming, chess, artificial intelligence or the early days of computing. I can easily see Computer Chess becoming a cult hit and having a dedicated fan-base, which unfortunately I will not be a part of. Almost nothing in this film worked for me – the acting, the cinematography, the color (or lackthereof), the pacing nor the writing. Again, there are some interesting, thought-provoking ideas within Bujalski’s film but regrettably the execution of these ideas and their presentation come across as bland and tiresome.