Cascading block forms called tetrominoes fill an affixed grid. Tetris is a pixel-perfect Soviet design, communally delegated The One Perfect Game, it has no wasted space, everything that happens is because of the person playing the game, and the systems are the perfect match between patterned intricacy and immediate accessibility. The risk/reward system is straightforward yet elaborate — you can clear rows not to fill too much space and lose the game, or you can set up larger areas to clear the board and buy even more time and space. The first time you play Tetris, you know what to do. The tenth time you play Tetris, it’s the only thing you think about anymore. Everyone knows Tetris. Everyone who really knows Tetris can visualize the game on the screen in front of them right now. Two options present themselves when adapting Tetris. You can make a story about the tetrominoes and really make a gonzo movie about the appeal and communal connection the game promotes or you can do the very literal story shown here about how Tetris was created and the behind-closed-doors business dealings that brought the game to consumers.
It’s a big genre right now: Hollywood is very interested in the quirky business backgrounds of common consumer products. There is a slew of projects like that this year: Tetris; Air; Blackberry; Flamin’ Hot; and Unfrosted: The Pop-Tarts Story. There are, of course, movies taking the other aforementioned approach, distinct visualizations of game and product concepts: Barbie; The Super Mario Bros. Movie; Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves; 80 for Brady; and Paint. The objects and personalities of pop culture have never been so streamlined and supercharged as the center of meta-entertainment brands. Beyond the cynic’s view that every movie is now a property, more accurately, every property is now a movie, and as there are so many, it is either meaningful or meaningless to begin to differentiate their exact qualities.
What works and is fun about Tetris is the deep understanding of the brand identity. That sounds like a marketing line but it is also true. Every time the jingle begins and the Russian folk poem of a song begins cresting in the background, it is a small dopamine fix. The organization of the film, into progressively difficult videogame stages, while half-baked, is pleasing, as the pixel art used to depict the central narrative when it breaks away from live action, is charming. The film also starts with the right notes. We begin at the Consumer Electronics Expo in Las Vegas, where videogame license salesmen feel like used car salesmen and there isn’t that much room between them anyway.
When the film needs to be an ordinary biopic, as it does most of the time to effectively relay the story, it falters and fails on its central premise. While the film is about Tetris, this is the story of businessman Henk Rogers (affably played by Taron Egerton) and how he almost sacrifices his life and his family’s livelihood for the good of a company and a consumer product. The routes it takes to get there oscillate between plainly tepid backroom dealings and staggeringly overused stereotypes. When Henk Rogers talks to businessmen from Nintendo about putting his newly acquired license to Tetris on the Game Boy, he only talks to them in analogies about Nintendo videogames. It’s insulting. You must imagine that the executives from Nintendo are some of the most distinguished in the industry and that they are consummate professionals who make the most cheerful games but are very serious and earnest about making them. This is my experience of Nintendo from trade shows. What doesn’t happen when pitching to Nintendo: winning a contract by suggesting we must just work as a team “like Mario and Luigi” or easing their nerves when things get dicey by explaining that a pitfall in obtaining the license is like “when Mario runs into a piranha plant.” Again, they make beautiful games for all ages, the people making and selling them are not children.
Can we count on the film to provide an honest portrayal of the USSR then? Absolutely not! Like Mario being eaten by a piranha plant, the film is consumed by its period-centric rhetoric. The world of the communists is a cold, dead world. Communism is bad. What saves the country is consumerism and especially Tetris. Here we enter the story of Tetris’ actual creator, Alexy Pajitnov (played by Nikita Efremov, who casts a handsome presence), and his growing relationship with Henk Rogers which just may help the American wrestle the business deal away from a massive corporation and into the hands of his then-small-time game development studio. It plays all the tropes down the middle about the USSR and is so coldly stereotypical about it, it’s hard to assign any new value. Structurally, the film begins to crack and expose the weaknesses of its design. Unlike the game it is about, the film is not unassailable at all.
Tetris is not a perfectly designed film with nothing to remove from it. If you removed most of the text about business deals, you may still have the heart of the movie, but it would be a short movie that still only recognizes people for the value they bring to companies. This has everything to do with this phase of prescribed product-driven moviemaking and not very much to do with how to make a compelling narrative out of the incredible falling block game.