Video game adaptations for TV and film are not only becoming increasingly more commonplace, but also successful and well-received as seen with shows like HBO’s The Last of Us. The Tetris film takes a slightly different route than many of these adaptations, however, in that it focuses on the true story of how Henk Rogers journeyed to the Soviet Union to acquire the handheld rights to Tetris.
Through his bold, and often unconventional efforts, Rogers was able to help Tetris cement itself as a household name through its release as a pack-in game for the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989. While the film falls more along the creative nonfiction lines than that of a serious biography, with plenty of Hollywood-ish elements thrown in (particularly towards the end), it delivers more than enough truth and heart to make it a compelling watch from start to finish.
Tetris was created in 1984 at the hands of Soviet Academy of Sciences software engineer, Alexey Pajitnov. The original version of the game was created in Pascal on an old Russian-made Electronika 60 computer. Given the technological limitations of this at the time, the seven uniquely shaped Tetris pieces known as Tetriminos were first iterated using brackets (or as they’re described in the film, parentheses) pushed together. We see this early iteration in the film, along with how Henk Rogers first discovered Tetris at a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 1988.
The complexities of getting the rights for the game out of the Soviet Union at the time, while embellished upon a bit for the sake of entertainment value, aren’t inaccurate. It really was a huge risk for Rogers to fly into the Soviet Union on a tourist visa and attempt to do business.
Before the events including Rogers' trip to Russia, I appreciated the speech that Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers gives at the beginning of the film on how Tetris was successful before he discovered it as it had already been circulating like mad on bootleg copies for PC. And this makes sense, especially given how Rogers was able to discover it outside the Soviet Union at a CES event in Las Vegas. Rogers also wasn’t the only one to take notice or express an interest in Tetris, as the film does a great job at showing, even if there are exaggerations for the sake of entertainment value and pacing.
The Tetris film takes the true story of Alexey Pajitnov’s brilliant creation, and Henk Rogers’ efforts to obtain the rights, and spins it up in largely truthful fashion. For example, for those who aren’t familiar with The Tetris Company, it may seem superfluous to include so much narrative around Henk’s daughter, Maya. However, at the end of the film it is mentioned briefly that in 2014, Henk Rogers passed down the title of CEO of The Tetris Company to Maya. As of today, Maya still serves as CEO of The Tetris Company, and I appreciated seeing her included in the film in scenes like her playing Tetris with her siblings.
It really shows how Tetris is timeless, and can appeal to people of all ages. Something that Henk Rogers himself pointed out to Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa to convince him to include Tetris as the pack-in game with the Game Boy over Super Mario Land. Outside of the multitude of things based on truth in the film, there are a number of fictional elements and Hollywood-ish action segments in the Tetris film that I’m fairly certain didn’t happen. At the very least, I’d love to ask Alexey Pajitnov if he was ever involved in a car chase with Henk Rogers similar to what’s shown in the film. Like, how good of a getaway driver is Alexey Pajitnov, really?
While some critics may take digs at the film for including over-the-top fiction like this in conjunction with facts about the game’s origins and battle between the likes of Robert Stein and the Maxwells for handheld publishing rights, I think the film blends everything together quite well. Telling the story by itself likely wouldn’t have translated as well as far as entertainment value goes.
If there were more fictional elements than truth, it would have been harder to recommend the film, sure. But from someone who considers themselves something of a Tetris expert, it only ever feels like it’s going way off the rails towards the end with things like the aforementioned car chase. In interviews, Pajitnov and Rogers have asserted as well that they were very involved with the film from start to finish, including with its script.
Essentially, all of the key points of the tale along with the emotional and spiritual feeling of the events that transpired come from a place of genuine sincerity. Outside of what’s accurate and what’s not, one other minor critique I had with the film is that some of its Russian characters feel tacked on. I would've much preferred seeing some of the screen time that’s given to these unimportant characters allocated to sharing more backstory and information on Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov, for example.
I acknowledge I’m a bit biased when it comes to talking about Tetris, and openly disclose that I’ve worked with The Tetris Company in the past writing articles for the Tetris website and handling social media channels like Twitter. With that being said, I genuinely found the film to be a lot of fun from a movie-goer and video game enthusiast point of view.
I thought the blend between fact and fiction was handled well, and feel like the Tetris film wouldn’t have turned out as nearly well had it targeted a more serious biography sort of route. Henk Rogers’ story of sticking to his guns and not backing down from the challenge of securing the handheld rights to Tetris, and Alexey's obvious desire to see it fall into the right hands, is something I feel like most people can get behind. Who doesn’t want to see the underdogs win?
In general, just seeing how a game with humble beginnings like Tetris came to be a global phenomenon, and one of the best-selling games of all time, is interesting regardless of whether you’re a Tetris fan or not. Sure, complementing this already intriguing premise are some “yeah, there’s no way that happened” moments, but I feel like most viewers will be able to pick these out immediately.
None of these detract from the bigger story, nor do they feel unnecessary. They really do well to balance out some of the more complex aspects of the publishing rights discussions, as well as the gloomy, boot-on-the-neck type feel of the Soviet Union at the time. The final product is a film that, while not perfect, sticks the landing in a big way. If you’ve ever wondered about the origins of Tetris, this film is a must-see.
This Tetris film directed by Jon S. Baird is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting today, March 31.
- Tells a compelling story that really did happen, for the most part
- Taron Egerton knocks it out of the park as Henk Rogers
- Nikita Efremov does an equally great job as Alexey Pajitnov
- Pixel animation scenes add charm and Tetris flair
- Fantastic soundtrack, Russian version of "I Need a Hero" slaps
- Solid runtime, doesn't feel too short or too long
- Dares to do something different in the video game adaptation space
- Side stories about certain Russian characters aren't necessary
- Some over-the-top embellishments
- Alexey Pajitnov was never a getaway driver in a car chase
Morgan Shaver posted a new article, Tetris film review: Boom, Tetris for Henk