When Hollywood tackles programming culture, the results are usually less than impressive. Probably the most famous film about coding, “The Social Network,” is wonderful in many ways (that Reznor score…), but capturing reality is not one of them. Same with “WarGames” and “Hackers,” though at least those movies didn’t claim to be based in fact. Meanwhile, the less said about the thinly-veiled Bill Gates biopic “AntiTrust” the better.
Tucked away in the filmography of 2013, which some have called the best year for movies in decades, was a film that finally gets programming right: Andrew Bujalski’s “Computer Chess,” which was added this month to Netflix Instant Streaming.
Bujalski pioneered a genre known as “mumblecore,” where 20-somethings played by amateur actors try to navigate a litany of romantic issues. It may come as surprise then to see the director tackle the story of programmers in the 80s who try to build a computer that can beat a human at chess. But Bujalski’s fly-on-the-wall direction and his actors’ naturalistic approach humanizes characters who in other films often come off as mere geeks or alien-like prodigies.
The film is set in the early 80s at a dingy hotel where programmers, chessmasters, and conspiracy theorists have gathered to watch computer chess programs do battle. At the end of the tournament, the winning program will compete against a human chess champion. The movie doesn’t focus so much on the ups and downs of the competition itself, however; this is no sports movie. Instead it lingers on after-hours conversations fueled by scotch and pills where computer geeks discuss the nature of artificial intelligence, the dangers of this technology being controlled by corporations and governments, and the difficulty of explaining why building a computer that plays chess matters.
For instance, one hotel guest not affiliated with the competition asks one of the coders why he’s limiting his work to a 64-square chess board when there’s a whole world out there to explore. The coder, played by Patrick Riester, responds, “It’s actually very complex when you start to think about it as a programming problem. The number of possible games explodes exponentially with each move. It’s close to ten to the 120th power, and to try to compute all those games might take even longer than humanity would be around to do so.”
In a way the hotel guest is right. A computer that can beat a human at chess doesn’t help the world in any meaningful way. But by solving the problem, the computer scientists can apply what they’ve learned to more human problems in the future. The film references this by including a second group of hotel goers who have gathered for an experimental couples therapy group, which might also just be a swingers club. The coders and the swingers interact with one another uneasily, one group devoted to solving the problems of machines, the other devoted to solving problems of human connections.
But there’s a dramatic irony to their interactions, considering that so much technology in 2013 is devoted to fostering social connections. Indeed, the videographer documenting the chess matches remarks near the end of the tournament, “You want to know the real future of computing? Dating.”
Although “Computer Chess” is fixed firmly in its time and place, it’s remarkable how well the characters reflect back today’s tech landscape. The archetypes are familiar to anyone who’s spent time with so-called “techies”: The self-destructive drug addict whose brilliance at coding has led to a rotting arrogance in all other areas of life. The pragmatic business-oriented developer who sells his technology to the highest bidder. The anti-social, detail-driven problem-solver whose one careless mistake leads to his downfall. The lone woman who deals with condescending remarks that aren’t quite overt enough to create noise over, but cut deep nonetheless.
All the while these characters are being manipulated and pushed around like lines of code (or chess pieces), often getting stuck in loops that require some kind of debugging that computer science cannot handle. One character keeps being followed by an ever-multiplying army of cats, which film critic Aaron Hillis says, “improbably suggests the rise of the Internet itself.”
By looking back to earlier days of computing, “Computer Chess” finds that the mechanics and imperfections of computer innovation haven’t changed much in the past thirty years. It’s just that now these happenings unfold in the public eye, not in the conference room of a run-down hotel. Maybe there was something purer about those days, when technology could progress without having every funding round or CEO shakeup dissected to death in the press. But judging by the betrayals, sloppiness, and instability on display in “Computer Chess,” the golden age of computing is just another myth perpetuated by our entrepreneurial culture.
Or as one of the characters puts it early on in the film, “Innovation can be a rocky road.”