The period comedy “Computer Chess” pays homage to a time in the not-so-distant past that feels like ancient history. A time-capsule look at computer-nerd culture in 1980, Andrew Bujalski’s unabashedly affectionate valentine to tech innovators reminds viewers that, before rock stars like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (and, oh yeah, Jeff Bezos) made ones and zeroes cool and lucrative, computers were the redoubt of anonymous coders with heads for numbers and severely constrained social skills.
Set at a featureless hotel during a computer-chess competition between M.I.T. and Caltech programmers, “Computer Chess” stars Patrick Riester as Peter Bishton, a bespectacled introvert who skates perilously close to human contact when he meets a comely opponent (Robin Schwartz) and bumps into a sexually liberated attendee at a human-potential retreat.
In other hands, the setup would be rife for raunchy screwball humor, but Bujalski — who made “mumblecore” a movement with the films “Funny Ha Ha” and “Mutual Appreciation” — instead takes an observational stance, looking kindly on his shy, awkward protagonists as they argue into the night about everything from artificial intelligence to the poetic subtleties of DOS.
“Computer Chess” admittedly falls prey to the very torpor and insiders’ jargon it tenderly sends up. But Bujalski has made the bold choice to record the entire film on old-fashioned black-and-white analog video, its juddering, Portopak production values standing in proud rebuke to the slick high-def iterations that would become the industry standard. Thus does the medium become the message, as Peter and his cohorts wheel enormous machines to and from conference rooms, the hilariously outdated computer font providing era- perfect identifying titles.
“Computer Chess” makes an affecting preservationist plea, in this case for a visual and material culture that, while not objectively beautiful, possessed its own form of buttoned-down passion — before it became obsolete by taking over the world. From the vantage point of The Washington Post newsroom this week, it’s impossible not to see “Computer Chess” as both a humble, low-fi ode to evanescence and the deceptively cute baby picture of the digital disrupters who will soon bestride the Earth.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains some suggestive material. 92 minutes.