Over a decade before engineers at IBM would pit Deep Blue against world Champion Garry Kasparov, the battle between man and machine on the chess board was waged by guys like the ones in the film.
Set in the early 80s, this deceptively shoddy film takes place over one weekend, where programmers from all over America congregate in a small hotel to hold the annual computer chess championships. The event, while full of pomp and officious red tape, is small enough that it’s forced to share the ballroom with a couples counseling seminar that takes place there in the morning.
Patrick is one of these guys. A junior programmer at Caltech, he is so seemingly nervous that we barely register anything behind his coke bottle glasses. He senses that there’s something wrong with the computer chess programme created by his respected professor but he can’t quite put his finger on it.
On the other end of the spectrum you have Michael Papageorge, an ‘independent programmer’ in a three-piece suit. Self-assured to the point of brusqueness, he’s quickly revealed to be a shambolic mess of a man, knocking on the doors of his fellow competitors late at night after failing to book a hotel room of his own.
The film, directed by Andrew Bujalski, looks and feels like it’s shot with early camcorder technology. While this has the potential of playing like a gimmick, there is a sense of authenticity: you genuinely feels like a relic of the period. It plays like one of Christopher Guest’s mock-docs, but with incredibly low-key performances. The only thing that suggests this didn’t happen for real is the movie’s abstract third act.
By that point, things go slightly delirious and the film starts disappearing into itself: with some of the characters start manifesting themselves as chess pieces or being likened to faulty computer programming. Between a pair of hicks who believe that these chess computers are heralding the end and a developer’s wild theory that computers will eventually be used for dating, there’s a strange fear of technology that’s palpable in amongst all the quaint 8-bit machines.
What starts off as a simple faux-documentary ends up as something unexpectedly poignant. You don’t need to know anything about computers, chess or computer chess to see this film, so do make a point of checking it out if you can.