There is nothing that gives the illusion of the infinite as a tangible concept quite like the game of chess.  Conquering the game has driven several mad and its geeky nature belies the fact that its 64 squares hides a chasm of never ending options and possibilities.  This rather philosophical interpretation of the game is the backdrop for Andrew Bujalski’s subtle comedy, Computer Chess (2013), concerning the invention and subsequent competition of computers able to play the game.

Set in a low-rent hotel and shot with period cameras, the landscape of Computer Chess is at once distinct and other-worldly.  With the electronic hum and bleeps on the soundtrack, this out-of-town highway hotel seems to be one equally of the past and as well as the future.  Perhaps the event of the computer chess tournament is at the fracture in time?

While these hints at a deeper and more philosophical questioning seem at home in an art-house film, it would be a shame for Computer Chess to be hidden and submerged in these questions.  In actuality, alongside this sense of longing for the infinite, Computer Chess is extremely fun.  The obsessive nature of the teams as they strive to beat each other is wonderfully realised in typical monotone voices.  When the Tsar team’s computer starts to lose, appearing to do so deliberately, their team’s realisation that the computer has made a bad move is one of the film’s best moments.

Indeed, the film is reminiscent of the BBC comedy satire Look Around You; both use technology of the past and predictions of the future as a source of comedy and other questions.  These questions for the series are more simple, dark humour but for Computer Chess, it is more about questioning the role of machine and of human.  The term artificial intelligence pops up several times but often gets quickly put aside by the comedy.

Really, Computer Chess is about A.I and asks just as many moral and philosophical questions about it as more serious films do.  Why does the Tsar computer want to lose against other computers but compete gallantly against people?  Why and how does it know that the moves decided are not that of a computer but that of living person instead?  Several shots indicate that the Tsar machine does in fact have a perspective; like a geeky, piss taking Hal 9000.  It’s arguably the most central character to the film, responsible for everything from the gradual awakening of Peter the team-member to the first birth of A.I.  It just happens to be an enigma with a sense of humour.

Outside of the geeky tournament, Bujalski fills his film with all sorts of strange phenomena.   The first appearance of a Persian cat taking a lift in the hotel is surreal enough but to find a whole room full of them later on hints that there are some forms of dreamscape happening.  They represent a number of surreal moments that seem to come from nowhere, as if the potential for infinity has opened up a gateway for all sorts of surreal events and ideas to bleed through.  The film therefore has a number of vague but pleasing ties to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) in this sense.

Instead of bleeding lifts and ghostly twins, the hotel of the tournament has the manifestation of artificial intelligence, an array of cats, men stumbling around the corridors in a trance-like state and a self-help group for adventurous couples.  The latter aspect of the film is one of its strangest with one scene in particular between Peter and a rather open-minded, middle-aged couple suggesting a sly menace.  Even the films ending, one that strongly suggests a sexual awakening, seems almost voyeuristic because of the how Bujalski shoots it. In fact the whole film, in spite of some innovative editing and composition gives the feel of a fly-on-the-wall situation, as if the camera shouldn’t really be there (and it even has competition from an actual film crew covering the competition as well).

When Tsar the computer is shown to have a point of view that the viewer can recognise, it’s shot in the same way on the old Sony camera.  Perhaps this world is meant to be seen through the eyes of a new intelligence or an artificial one and this dilapidated way of filming is just to show the human eye through the filter of a technological one?  Either way, the mere presence of a point of view instantly calls into question the role of A.I and the opinions it appears to have on the role it is being forced into by the geeks and computer experts.

Computer Chess is not a typical comedy.  In fact, it’s one of the most unique films of the year, if not the decade.  From the simple aspects of how it was made to the heavy questions it lightly pokes, Computer Chess may not be riotous but it is good company, even if this company has only just become sentient.

Computer Chess is out now in cinemas and released by Masters of Cinema on DVD in January 2014.

Adam Scovell

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