Box Brown’s 2016 graphic novel Tetris: The Games People Play explores the creation of Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris in the grander context of how humans play. The book reaches back 3,500 years to Ancient Egypt, starting with the ancient board game Senet, then leaps forward to 19th-century Japan, and the founding of Nintendo, which made Tetris a household name. 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, turning the story of Tetris and its escape from Russia into an uneven Cold War spy thriller with an ’80s pop-culture veneer. It’s a glossy, abridged version of the events that led to the game’s global success, focusing less on Pajitnov than on desperate businessman Henk Rogers (the Kingsman movies’ Taron Egerton) and how he attempts to untangle the Tetris rights so he and Nintendo can score millions from Pajitnov’s game.
Tetris the movie is at its humming best when it attempts to recount the cutthroat negotiations that determined who owned the rights to sell the video game Tetris. Director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Noah Pink put the complicated battle to secure contracts to Tetris in the late 1980s at the heart of their movie about the making — and the exploitation — of Pajitnov’s hit puzzle game.
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 employee Nikolai Belikov plays with Rogers and his rivals — the conniving Robert Stein and villainous Mirrorsoft execs Kevin and Robert Maxwell — is fascinating to watch. As he masterfully sequesters them from each other in ELORG’s dingy offices, slick-haired KGB goons try to muck up the negotiations through spying and menacing intimidation tactics.
The rest of the film is, ironically, far less engrossing than the push and pull of a contract negotiation. Tetris presents Rogers as a wheeler and dealer on the precipice of financial disaster, unafraid of what the Soviets could do to him for selling Tetris without their permission. Pink weaves in hints that Rogers feels regret over becoming an absent father, as the chase to secure Tetris rights consumed him.
But when the movie shifts into its action segments — including an outlandish car chase that’s strangely pixelated — it beggars belief. Rogers, Pajitnov, and the former Nintendo employees featured in the film never seem to have mentioned this kind of thriller-movie adventure being part of the Tetris story, and these scenes read as manipulative rather than authentic. As fascinating as the true story of Tetris is, it repeatedly raises the question, Did any of this happen this way? Tetris fans who have watched the BBC documentary From Russia with Love or read David Scheff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered The World may have similar gnawing questions.
The film’s creators note 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 did go all the way to the Soviet Union’s then-leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to try to secure the rights to Tetris. But there are points in the film where the taken-from-reality portions of the story part ways with the obviously-written-as-a-thriller scenes, and the movie becomes less interesting as a result. (It feels remarkably similar to the movie Argo, notably, both in its climactic scenes and the streamlining of important details.)
Tetris’ creation and its worldwide spread is a great story, but the complexities of its thorny rights issues and lawsuits don’t fit with the cartoon villainy and heavy dramatization of Apple’s new film. Despite Baird and Pink’s best attempts at cinematic tension and surprise twists, this story plays better elsewhere, in the retellings with a firmer grip on reality.
Tetris premieres on Apple TV Plus on March 31.