Reviewer’s note: I know this is late. Not easy to get Apple+ where I live.
In 1989, Tetris debuted on the Nintendo Entertainment System and, later in the same year, was bundled with the Nintendo Gameboy. If you were alive at the time, and had access to a Nintendo gaming system, you probably played one of these two versions. What most people forget is that there was actually a second version of the game released that year also on the NES. While using the same basic concept of arranging falling puzzle pieces to make lines, and adding both co-operative and competitive modes, the Tengen version of Tetris lacked the refined polish – the perfect progression of levels and difficulty, the easily defined blocks, the shifting color palettes, the ever-increasing tension as the music increases with the fall speed – which made Nintendo’s release one of the greatest video games of all time. Countless iterations and knock-offs of the game have since been released with the most successful – Tetris DS, The Tetris Effect, Tetris 99 – being those which added to and enhanced the game’s core, thus proving that while a single great idea can make for a solid foundation, genius is in making every piece fit together. Unfortunately, while the story is solid, the pieces just don’t come together in this latest film version of Tetris.
Marketed as a biopic for both Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) and Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), Tetris develops into a standard Cold War-era thriller, as each of its main players, discernible by 8-bit style graphics and labels of “Player 1,” “Player 2,” and so forth attempt to control their own game of publishing and licensing rights. Director Jon S. Baird maintains the retro gaming motif through frequent use of animated transitions, some of which are full screen and some of which are not-quite Tetris blocks falling to real footage, and occasional flourishes during the film’s conversations. Yet, while inclusion of such graphics adds to the film’s 80’s gaming feel, they also serve as an immediate example of the lack of specific attention given to the specific narrative. Rather than build its transitional or conversational effects out of actual tetrominoes, the film uses generic retro graphics, as though the producers were banking on general nostalgia to cover a lack of focus on what makes this particular story interesting. Worse still is the baffling choice to include these graphical elements in the film’s climatic sequence. What should be the height of two hours’ worth of tension, when the blocks are falling fast, the music is speeding, and the stack is getting higher, is undercut by sudden bursts of pixilation. Tetris already has difficulty in finding tension, it doesn’t need to then break its own immersion by splashing unnecessary effects at every moment of impact.
As a game, Tetris has always used inevitability to great effect. Players know that eventually we’ll run out of space, the blocks will reach the top, and we’ll lose. Sadly, inevitability is not as native to Tetris as a film. Viewers know that Rogers and Nintendo will eventually win the rights to Pajitnov’s game. As a result, the game becomes intense while the movie never does. Perhaps this difference is in the outcome itself: players will ultimately lose while Rogers will ultimately win, but more likely this lack in intensity is from the heavy-handed way in which Tetris (the movie) attempts to create tension. Rogers faces a completed list of movie stakes clichés, including a literal spotlight over his empty seat in the front row of his daughter’s singing recital, to such a degree that it’s comical when the guns come out and the car chase begins. It simply isn’t realistic that an entire country would potentially collapse over the rights to a friggin’ video game, even one as brilliant as Tetris.
Despite its Cold War trappings and stabs at cultural differences, more than anything Tetris wants to be The Social Network. Trouble is, Tetris doesn’t have David Fincher’s cold introspective intensity, Aaron Sorkin’s cracking dialog and knack for characters who talk smarter than they act, or the film’s will to focus on its leads’ faults. Sure, Rogers is frequently criticized for being impulsive, foolish, and “American,” but the film also holds him up as a sort of paragon of capitalistic virtue so good that even a detached Soviet bureaucrat succumbs to his inherent goodness. In contrast, Pajitnov is given considerably less screen time despite being the one who is in genuine danger of losing more than money and the one who actually invented the titular game. It’s fitting that the version of this story presented by Apple wouldn’t have the creator of the property as its hero but instead focus on the guy most determined to profit from that creator’s work. It’s also fitting of an American film that the antagonists are both the Soviet Union – so evil that its government offices are cast in red lights – and a British billionaire who is so cartoonishly villainous that he’s decked out in a horrible wig and stealing from his employees’ pension fund. The biggest surprise with Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) is that he doesn’t light his cigars with hundred dollar bills. Rogers, meanwhile, is the ideal underdog businessman, using corporate money to uplift the downtrodden communist. Yay profiting off other people’s labor! Yet, in another example of laziness, the film can’t keep its own one-note characters in order. Both Alexey and Rogers have children who conveniently disappear when not needed for another bit of heavy-handed drama. At one point Rogers shows a picture and names each of his four young children, yet only three ever appear on screen, and his wife only brings one home to an otherwise empty house. There is decent emotion in seeing the characters ultimately triumph, but that emotion could have been so much more profound.
The way in which Tetris does work is the same as with its namesake: a single, great idea. The story of Tetris‘s release is a fascinating one full of international intrigue, quirks, and the absurdities people and societies construct to perpetuate their illusion of power. Instead of allowing the various pieces to come together naturally, or even to arrange them in an unusual yet compelling form like Social Network, Tetris tries to force them into a typical Hollywood structure. It’s easy to imagine a different version of this same story, either as a documentary or as a more focused, more refined drama where both Rogers and Pajitnov are given equal footing. Their lives could be easy contrasts with each other in how differently they pursue the concept of success. Further, in a time of increased debate over creator rights and responsibilities, there is an extremely relevant statement to be made on intellectual property rights, the impact of piracy, and large entities – be they corporate or governmental – seizing control of one’s creation. Between YouTube videos being removed for copyright infringement (looking at you Nintendo) and AI programs stealing the work of writers and artists, the wrangling over the right to publish Tetris is fertile ground for exploration on topics that extend far beyond nostalgic graphics, 80’s pop songs, and Cold War drama.
A more refined version of Tetris could have been an Oscar winner and successor to The Social Network. It could have been remembered as one of the defining releases for Apple+. This version, that glosses over much of what could have made the story unique and interesting, is as easily forgotten as that other version of the game. The one that all of its unsold copies destroyed following the events of this movie. Like its namesake, Tetris has the pieces needed for a solid foundation. Unlike its namesake, the film lacks the genius to make those pieces come together.