Friday, February 28, 2014

"Computer Chess" movie: come for the 80s tech nostalgia, stay for the weirdness

The movie "Computer Chess" passed largely unnoticed in the big theaters (it didn't even play in Austin), but I greatly enjoyed this mockumentary about a computer chess tournament in the early 1980s. At first I didn't think that it would have much value beyond nostalgic or historical. A nostalgia trip for those who were computer nerds in the eighties, I thought it might be educational for someone like me, who never saw a PC up close until the early 90s. It must have been harder to be passionate about computing in the days when computers didn't fit in your pocket; the really devoted computer scientists, such as the ones portrayed in this movie, put their machines on dollies and wheeled them from room to room when they wanted to play them against one another.

But what drew me in for historical value made me stay for the character study.

At first, the players seem pretty ordinary college students as they get together in a hotel room in the evening and "debate" big questions, such as plausibility of artificial intelligence, or the nature of consciousness, with all the banality of a young person discovering those questions for the first time and not yet having done their intellectual homework. But as the tournament progresses and their programs start to go astray, their personalities blossom into bouquets of quirks.

The movie juxtaposes the players with an "officially" weird group of people: the attendees of a wacky couples retreat that goes on in the hotel the same weekend. Barking at each other like dogs is just one of the ways the New Age'y couples attain some kind of transcendence and deepen their connection. Ostensibly, the computer chess tournament and the retreat could not be more different, but soon they become more similar than one could guess. As it turns out, smart people who are deeply absorbed in, even obsessed with their work, quickly veer into outlandish beliefs. A tired, overwhelmed, razor-focused-on-one-thing human mind is unwilling to accept natural explanations when things don't go the way it wants. The movie does not ridicule anyone: human weirdnesses are portrayed in a loving, non-judgmental manner. It merely observes as the two polar opposites -- computer geniuses and New Age'y quacks -- move closer together. It's fitting that the final match between a human chess master and the computer takes place side-by-side with the woo-woo practice in an accidentally double-booked conference room.

Speaking of conference rooms: this movie has a feel of the lowest-budget-movie-ever. It takes place entirely in a nondescript Ramada Inn. Who would have thought that you could shoot a movie in Austin, and not even have Austin cityscape anywhere in the backdrop? On behalf of my adopted city I might be a little offended. :-)

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