“The very important role of Tetris of that time was that it started to break down the barrier between people and computers,” Pajitnov told me in an interview. Early on, he said people were embarrassed to admit they were hooked on Tetris, and others were quick to say they don’t play games, “just Tetris.” Now gaming, especially those of the casual mobile variety, can reach just about anyone.
At the very least, Tetris the film understands the power of games. But it would be stronger if it embraced the reality of the story, rather than try to position itself as a cheap spy movie. British billionaires Robert and Kevin Maxwell are more James Bond villains than actual humans (admittedly, that may not be far from the truth), as they wrangle with Soviet leaders and Rogers over distribution rights to the game. Soviet intelligence officers, who repeatedly threaten Rogers and Pajitnov, are even more cartoonish. By the time we reached an obligatory car chase that, for some reason, also turns into pixelated graphics, I was almost completely checked out.
It’s doubly disappointing since the movie didn’t need to do much of this. The real-world licensing dilemma, which kicked off after the British software seller Robert Stein sold rights to the game before the Soviet Union’s approval, could be compelling enough. Prior to Rogers’ discovery of the game, Stein had sold rights to the Maxwell’s Mirrorsoft for European distribution, and to Spectrum Holobyte in the US. Rogers’ snagged Spectrum’s rights, but quickly realized that Steins’ contracts were likely illegitimate. To the movie’s credit, it also covers this licensing drama, but it’s almost always overshadowed by the more fantastical elements added by the filmmakers.
While the pieces don’t entirely fit into place (sorry), if Tetris pushes more people to explore the actual history of the game through other media, like the BBC’s documentary Tetris: From Russia with Love, Dan Ackerman’s The Tetris Effect and the graphic novel The Games People Play, it may have been worth it. Still, its existence also means we won’t get to see any other adaptations, like a Halt and Catch Fire-esque limited series, anytime soon.