Box Brown’s 2016 graphic novel Tetris: the games people play explores Alexey Pajitnov’s creation Tetris in the larger context of how people play. The book goes back 3,500 years to ancient Egypt, starting with the ancient board game Senet, then jumps forward to 19th century Japan, and the founding of Nintendo, which Tetris a concept. This scene setting is a thoughtful foundation for how Tetris went from a hobbyist diversion created during the Soviet era to a global phenomenon – and how math, science and art collide to form video games.
Apple’s new movie Tetris takes a different approach and changes the story of Tetris and the escape from Russia in an uneven Cold War spy thriller with an 80s pop culture veneer. It’s a glossy, condensed version of the events leading up to the game’s worldwide success, focusing less on Pajitnov than on desperate businessman Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton of the Kingsman films) and how he Tetris so that he and Nintendo can score millions with Pajitnov’s game.
Tetris the film is at its best when it tries to tell the cutthroat negotiations that determined who owned the rights to sell the video game Tetris. Director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Noah Pink instigate the complicated battle to win contracts Tetris central to their film about the making – and exploitation – of Pajitnov’s popular puzzle game in the late 1980s.
On screen, it all feels a bit ridiculous: men in suits yell at subordinates and fellow executives that they Must get the handheld and arcade rights to Tetris! Now!! But the real-life puzzle game Soviet state operative Nikolai Belikov plays with Rogers and his rivals – the conniving Robert Stein and villainous Mirrorsoft execs Kevin and Robert Maxwell – is fascinating to watch. While he masterfully isolates them in the dingy offices of ELORG, smooth-haired KGB goons try to ruin the negotiations through espionage and menacing intimidation tactics.
The rest of the film is, ironically, much less engaging than the push and pull of contract negotiations. Tetris presents Rogers as a speculator and dealer on the precipice of financial disaster, unafraid of what the Soviets might do to him for selling Tetris without their permission. Pink interweaves hints that Rogers regrets becoming an absent father as the chase to secure Tetris rights consumed him.
But when the movie shifts to its action segments — including a bizarre car chase that’s oddly gritty — it’s unbelievable. Rogers, Pajitnov and the former Nintendo employees featured in the movie never seem to have said that this kind of thriller movie adventure is part of the Tetris story, and these scenes read as manipulative rather than authentic. As fascinating as the true story of Tetris it repeatedly begs the question, Did it happen this way? Tetris fans who have seen the BBC documentary From Russia with love or read David Scheff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World may have similar nagging questions.
The makers of the film notice that Tetris is “based on a true story,” a traditional disclaimer that gives Baird and Pink infinite dramatic license to fictionalize Rogers’ time in Russia. Some of the shocking developments seen here are true: Mirrorsoft’s Robert Maxwell really went all the way to the then leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, to try to get the rights to Tetris. But there are points in the film where the parts of the story taken from reality diverge from the clearly written as a thriller scenes, and the film becomes less interesting as a result. (It feels remarkably similar to the movie Argoespecially both in the climactic scenes and in streamlining important details.)
TetrisIts creation and worldwide distribution is a great story, but the complexities of the thorny rights issues and lawsuits don’t match the cartoon villain and heavy dramatization of Apple’s new movie. Despite Baird and Pink’s best attempts at cinematic suspense and surprising twists, this story plays better elsewhere, in the retellings with a firmer grip on reality.
Tetris premieres March 31 on Apple TV Plus.