“Computer Chess”: The Whole Technology Debate, Circa 1980

Andrew Bujalski's thought-provoking Computer Chess is a throwback to an era when computers were still abstract to the general public, bulky beige machines with mysterious and possibly sinister applications. Shot on a 1969-vintage video camera with mostly non-actors, the picture follows a group of people circa 1980 at a hotel hosting both a computer chess tournament and a touchy-feely couples' retreat. The two worlds intersect, never quite comfortably, unaware that one subculture will flourish in the coming decade (the programmers) while the other is already fading away (the swingers). The closest thing in Computer Chess to star power is Wiley Wiggins, the nominal lead of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, and the inexperience of the rest of the actors playing the programmers gives them an appropriately stilted quality, reminiscent of the awkwardness of their real-life counterparts. Computer Chess may also be the most subtle found-footage horror movie ever, with bursts of surrealism (kitties!) and a profound sense of dread about the seemingly inevitable rise of artificial intelligence — and, potentially, computers gaining souls. We know things didn't quite play out like that, and director Bujalski knows it, but the characters don't, and Computer Chess taps into a once-potent anxiety that now feels every bit as quaint as a 40-column monitor.

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