With Sundance half past, the crowd-sourced task of finding excellent titles has paid off at least twice: Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess and Randy Moore’s Escape from Tomorrow, two subversive films shot in black-and-white, will leave Park City with critical favor and audience intrigue speeding them on their way.
Computer Chess, the latest surprise from indie darling Andrew Bujalski (Mutual Appreciation, Funny Ha Ha), is a tiny, subtle comedy about a weekend computer chess tournament, an event where programming geeks pit their programs against one another to see which machine is best at chess.
In Bujalski’s film, the year is 1980–a period in programming where artificial intelligence was on the cusp of ultimately becoming “smarter” than human potential–at least, in terms of playing chess. The idea that an inanimate object could work faster and think deeper than an organic, creative brain is also a prevalent theme here, fleshing out the distinct anxiety of a world where machines are self-aware (one chess program, we learn later, refuses to compete properly against other machines, making intelligent moves only when it knows a human is playing.)
Shot on vintage Portapak tape in 4:3 aspect ratio, the film excels at recreating the atmosphere and feel of the early 1980s, nailing everything from the clunky computer hardware to the stifling décor of the convention’s tacky venue (the time-capsule effect is enough to induce some serious nostalgia).
During the weekend-long tournament, the days are filled with matches while the nights get a little freaky, with pot smoke, open-arms sexuality, and red-eyed coding sessions adding some brilliant color to the monochromatic satire. Providing the most vibrancy, however, is the wackiness of competitor Michael Papageorge, who shines as both the Han Solo and Cosmo Kramer of computer chess: his contrarian attitude, cynical remarks, and lone-gun persona make for comedy gold at the nerd Olympics.
For the most part, though, Computer Chess remains reserved, opting for understated irony and deliberate pacing instead of explicit punchlines. In a memorable scene before the tournament has formally started, for example, we hear a speaker drone to a crowd about the latest advances in computer chess, but a quick cut to the audience reveals a man slipping in and out of consciousness, put to sleep from sheer boredom. The awkward trials of geekdom are examined here, where socializing is stressful and life is lived as a series of math problems; each issue solved rationally one after another. Much of the film unfolds this way: slowly, yet layered with moments of sarcastic dryness to keep things engaging.
When Escape from Tomorrow’s credits finished rolling, a friend proudly exclaimed: “If I was high and in college, this movie would have flipped my shit.” I may be paraphrasing a tad, but the general sentiment is there: the film hits you upside the head like a throbbing caffeine headache, with or without the aid of external substances.
Randy Moore’s debut feature is the most notorious debut in Park City for its unique provenance: a majority of his narrative was filmed on location at Orlando’s Disney World and Epcot, where filming for commercial purposes is strictly taboo. Because of this, I’m not sure if many readers will even have the opportunity to experience Escape from Tomorrow. Despite all the nice things reviewers can say about the film, the fact remains that this was done without the animation giant’s explicit permission, meaning Tomorrow could potentially share a fate similar to Todd Haynes’ Superstar: officially banned but beloved behind closed doors (and maybe a firewall or two). To be honest, though, this (likely) scenario wouldn’t be so bad. Sometimes it’s fun to break the rules, as Moore undoubtedly knows.
Had this film been a light-hearted romantic comedy where two consenting, beautiful humans find love in a magical theme park, it’s possible the Disney Company would waive the legal matters and allow the film to see the light of day. Of course, Escape from Tomorrow is not that film: it is a subversive, nightmarishly bizarre trek following Jim (Roy Abramsohn), his two kids, and a nagging wife on a family vacation to Lake Buena Vista’s fabled resort. It’s hard to say much more without ruining the phenomenon of Moore’s project, but let’s just say Jim is fated for a roller-coaster ride (literally) of grotesque images, a sinister temptress, and something crazy called “cat flu.” In more ways than one, it’s a decapitating head trip.
Those familiar with Walt Disney and his legacy will know that Mickey and Co. are a litigious bunch, but realistically, it’s not hard to see why the Mouse House would want to squelch the film. Moore’s script alludes to a variety of horrors hiding latent at Disney World, including children being snatched from their parents and established characters turning “evil” in a flash. Further complicating things is the uncomfortable theme of pedophilia running rampant throughout the narrative, manifested through Jim’s fascination (and fetishization) of two petite Parisians and the fucked-up intentions of a mysterious woman. It’s disturbing. I know that’s kind of the point, but some scenes are a tough sit.
For better or for worse, these shocking provocations (like the tints of pedophilia) oversaturate the film to the point of absurdity. The initial moments that both thrill and happily beguile soon become tiresome, and it’s clear the project as a whole is ultimately more interesting than it is ingenious; more fascinating for its potential illegality and unknown future than its actual sum. Also disappointing is Moore’s use of green screen, an aesthetic crutch that feels out of place and looks downright amateur. Go big or go home, right? It’s obvious certain VFX scenes require a static environment to properly execute, but the visible seams ruin the immersion and make the “filmed entirely at Disney World” hype an oversell (and complete falsehood, as the film was shot at Disney Land, Disney World, and Occidental Studios in Los Angeles). Regardless of these issues, you won’t see another film shot candidly at an amusement park—and if Disney World is where you think human decency goes to die, Escape from Tomorrow is calling your name.