Apple movie Tetris tells a truly extraordinary story from the gaming history books: the time when a scruffy video game promoter, Henk Rogers, battled with Britain’s evil media magnates, Robert and Kevin Maxwell, to win the handheld rights to the greatest game of all time. win over a dying, paranoid Soviet Union. This is the incredible origin story of the Game Boy Tetrisand it doesn’t look like it needs any embellishment.
But while the surprisingly tense contract negotiation scenes stay pretty close to the historic record, Tetris the film is otherwise an unashamedly heightened version of the story. It’s a frothy Cold War thriller in which Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov takes the wheel for a climactic car chase, Rogers has a romantic affair with a honeypot KGB agent, Robert Maxwell punches a Russian official in the face, and Nintendo executives Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln run frantically through an airport, chased by Soviet goons.
“We are doing this documentary version of (the Tetris story),” director Jon S. Baird tells Polygon. “There is a really great documentary called From Russia with lovethat is available on YouTube. It’s a really great story, but you know, to make it a two-hour version, you have to make the story a little bit Hollywoodish, if that’s a word. Baird and screenwriter Noah Pink certainly participated Tetris, in a brutal way that is arguably cheesy and inauthentic, but can also be called disarmingly honest. You can’t really be wrong Tetrisspy hull flourishes before the real thing.
Baird and Pink also had the backing of the film’s subjects. “We’ve been involved in writing the screenplays from the very beginning,” says Pajitnov. For our interview, the man himself wore a tie-dye Tetris T-shirt and sitting next to his partner in crime, a tanned and bearded Rogers. (The pair co-founded The Tetris Company after the events portrayed in the film.) “We did our best to make it as truthful as possible, but we always understood that we had to compromise on several points. At the end of the day, we’ve squeezed our lives into the very short two-hour film, and at that point some exaggeration is quite natural. But I want to say that, spiritually and emotionally, it is a very correct and very truthful story told from the screen.”
Baird reiterates that: “We didn’t do anything without their knowledge… And Henk said, ‘Look, all you have is 100% true to the emotional journey that me and Alexey have been on.’ I thought it was a nice way to say, ‘Yeah, go ahead and take artistic license.’”
Another bold but striking stylistic choice the filmmakers make is the use of 8-bit pixel graphics to enhance exposition, action sequences and shot-making. Baird says it was a belated decision to bring a nostalgic gaming flavor to a movie that was originally designed purely as a thriller. “When we came to the post, we thought: Well, we have to make a nod to the game industry, for game fans, so that came later. Many of those ideas, Matthew (Vaughn, king man director), our producer, had.”
Not all Tetris is as bizarre as it seems. To unfamiliar viewers, the Maxwells – the plague tycoon Robert and his odious son Kevin – may come across as sub-Succession cartoon villains. But British viewers with long memories will know that their portraits are actually lifelike. One notable source even believes that the rogueness of Robert Maxwell’s movie version is understated. “I spoke to Kevin Maxwell before we shot the movie, just to get his blessing that we could use his likeness,” says Baird. And he said, “All I’d like to say is that you didn’t hit my dad hard enough.” My father was much worse than you have him.’”
Baird’s eye for casting smaller roles is one of the movie’s saving graces. Oleg Shtefanko is brilliant as Russian negotiator Nikolai Belikov, Ben Miles makes a perfectly smooth Howard Lincoln and Togo Igawa nails the hauntingly impassive Easter Island face of legendary Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Just because the film is amplified doesn’t mean the details aren’t right, Baird says. “I’ve done a few true stories, and why don’t you try and get everything as close together as you can, you know? I try to do that with everything, with the accents, with the clothes, with everything, just try to get everything right. You can’t get everything right, but try,” he says.
Pajitnov and Rogers agree that despite the whimsical elements, the film (which was shot in Scotland) captures the atmosphere of late 1980s Moscow. For Rogers, this is the part of the movie that feels closest to his lived experience. “The negotiations, the disorientation… You know, the Soviet Union was (then) a bit like North Korea is now,” says Rogers. “If you can imagine going to North Korea and trying to make a deal with someone, you’re definitely breaking the law and you’re definitely going to get in trouble. And I felt that as I moved: I was testing what I could get away with and how far, all the time. Every time I got a little further I said: Okay, I can get away with that. Ooh, now I can go to someone’s house! It’s like speeding and not getting caught.”
“That was a very dark time,” says Pajitnov. “The Soviet Union was ready to fall apart. At the same time it was the Perestroika era, with a lot of hope with Glasnost, with a kind of energy that comes from spreading freedom. So it was kind of hopeful. That’s why we were so brave during these things and kind of went against all these evil forces.
“On the last day we signed the contract, I wanted everyone to celebrate with a sip of vodka,” says Rogers. “And it was illegal to drink in a government building at the time. And so they put people at the windows and at the door to make sure no one witnessed this.” Pajitnov chuckles at the memory. “Yes, remember!”
That’s not a James Bond level of action-adventure, but it’s not a typical business negotiation either. Perhaps it’s a shame to lose this kind of believable detail in favor of face punching and car chases. Maybe it doesn’t matter, and it’s all just a little fun. Or maybe, as Pajitnov says, the Tetris movie just tells the truth in the only way Hollywood knows how: ringing the doorbell.
Tetris premieres March 31 on Apple TV Plus.