Some time during the early 1980's, computer programmers gather together at a hotel for a weekend-long computer chess tournament. The programmers include Shelly Flintic (Robin Schwartz), Peter Bushton (Patrick Riester), Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige) and Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins), among others. Each of them seems eccentric in their own idiosyncratic ways. They're intelligent, but not particularly articulate or adept at social interactions. Peter, for instance, behaves quite shyly while Michael awkwardly flirts with Shelly. Is there a plot, you wonder? Just barely. Michael doesn't have his own room to sleep in at the hotel, so he crashes at someone else's room each night which makes for some interesting encounters with other eccentric programmers. Peter crosses paths with a group of hippies who use the same room that the tournament takes place in for their chants. Don't ask what the appearance of some cats has to do with anything.
Writer/director Andrew Bujalski has a good ear for natural dialogue (see Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation for evidence), so it comes as no surprise that the characters here feel like living, breathing human beings. He captures the computer programming "geek" culture from the 1980's with a lots of attention to detail that further aides in heightening the sense of realism. Permeating this realism, though, is some refreshing weirdness and droll humor which spices things up a bit and occasionally veers from the "documentary" style into droll satire. A discussion about the power and future of computers makes for a provocative and amusing conversation among the programmers. Later, uber-shy Peter meets a couple who realize that it's a futile effort to remind him that there's a world outside of computer programming. It's in those kind of intimate discussions where Computer Chess starts showing a little depth in its insights about the dawn of the computer age and into its own characters lives.
The fact that Bujalski has chosen to shoot the film using a Sony AVC-3260 tube camera from 1969 with black-and-white, grainy images speaks volumes about how bold and intelligent he is as a director. When the wafer-thin plot begins to meander toward the end, you still have Computer Chess's aesthetic to admire and, most importantly, to hold your attention. In a sense, its style is part of its substance. Bujalski wisely shows discipline by ending the film after 91 minutes so that it doesn't overstay its welcome. If you're a fan of a the computer geek culture of the 1980's or were a part of it, watching the underrated 1980's film Electric Dreams after Computer Chess would make for an interesting double feature.