An odd, off-kilter film, Computer Chess, has managed to pull off something that no other science fiction story ever has. With its tale of an early 1980s computer chess tournament, it reveals the mundane, silly way that a truly dangerous artificial intelligence might emerge.
Famed indie director Andrew Bujalski has put together a collection of actors and non-actors for what looks like something that was filmed on an old video cassette recorder. It's a grainy black and white document of what happens when a gang of geeks get together at the dawn of the computer age to talk about the future and pit their chess-playing programs against each other for a weekend. Several of the software developers, including the excitable tourney winner Les, are played by real life software developers; and computer scientist Tom is played by University of Chicago computer science professor Gordon Kindlmann.
What emerges is a surprisingly realistic picture of both a time in history – the tail end of the freewheeling 1970s – and a moment in the history of ideas. Put another way, it's about what happens when a group of artificial intelligence developers wind up in the same hotel with a bunch of swingers who are trying to actualize themselves.
We follow the action mostly from the perspective of Peter, Tom's student at Caltech, who is quietly freaking out because his team's software is buggy in unexpected ways. Peter almost never talks, preferring instead to interact with the command line. But actor Patrick Reister — another non-actor who normally works as a film editor — has a marvelously expressive face, and manages to convey Peter's awkwardness, intelligence, and finally anger as the weekend goes on.
Peter wanders the hotel hallways, looking for answers, finding himself in parties where geeks are getting stoned and speculating about how artificial intelligence could end the world – and at one point even stumbling into a hotel room where a husband and wife from the "marriage encounter" group try to seduce him. As I mentioned earlier, the acting is incredibly naturalistic. A lot of the conversations between the scientists and self-actualizers sound exactly like what you really would hear if two such different groups came together in a hotel conference space. That said, there some geek stereotypes straight out of Big Bang Theory. Peter is portrayed as virginal and shy in the extreme, many of the characters are ungainly dorks, and the "one lady" on the MIT team, Shelly, is singled out for weird attention from pretty much everyone.
Still, there are a lot of memorable characters you would never find on TV, like crazy independent programmer Michael Papageorge, a scammer who believes he alone holds the secret key to AI. And then there are the weird marriage encounter people who keep barging into the computer chess area to do their morning rebirth rituals. There's a lot of pleasure to be had in just listening in to these geeks' conversations, and imagining how this weird, obscure event was the birthplace of today's Internet culture.
But the best part is watching how Peter's perspective changes during the weekend, as he begins to figure out why his chess program is working so badly. After a strange conversation with his professor, he has a secret meeting with Shelly from the rival team where he discovers something astonishing about his program. He also realizes that his professor's funding is actually coming from some kind of secret government program. All these details – which bubble up in the background as the tournament goes on – provide a dark counter-narrative to the film's overwhelmingly loopy, comedic tone.
I'm not going to give away what happens, but suffice to say this is a movie that somehow combines the preoccupations of the Terminator franchise with gentle humor and a keen eye for historical detail. If you want to know how Skynet might really have been born, you need to watch Computer Chess. And if you just want to hang out with some groovy nerds who are debating the Singularity, you can come for that too.
Computer Chess is out now as a direct download and on iTunes.