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Movie review: 'Tetris' makes addictively fascinating true gaming story

Taron Edgerton (L) and Nikita Efremov star in "Tetris." Photo courtesy of Apple TV+
1 of 5 | Taron Edgerton (L) and Nikita Efremov star in "Tetris." Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

LOS ANGELES, March 15 (UPI) -- Tetris is one of the most addicting video games ever. The movie Tetris, on Apple TV+ March 31, makes the story behind the game as addictive as the most intense levels.

The film explains how Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) developed the puzzle game in Russia. Henk Rogers (Taron Edgerton) discovered Tetris at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show and saw its potential in the United States.

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Henk already was late to the party and could only obtain arcade and home console rights in Japan. Robert Stein (Toby Jones) held the rest of the international territories and was working exclusively with Mirrorsoft.

Tetris established all of this in a fast-paced montage that includes 8-bit graphics evoking those of Nintendo, who is soon to be a player in the story, and '80s music.

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The Tetris theme, "Korobeiniki," works its way into the score and soundtrack music. "Korobeiniki" is Russian classical music, but since the '80s, it is forever the Tetris theme like Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" is forever the 2001 theme.

Even when Henk talks about pixels and programming languages, it's just technical enough to be authentic, while simple enough that lay people in the audience can follow what he's saying. The film also explains the etymology of the name Tetris.

What's miraculous about Tetris is how it maintains that whirlwind pace for two hours. The film moves at the pace of the evolution of technology, which is to say breathlessly quick.

Tetris further evokes video games by dividing the film into levels 1, 2 and 3, in which the business gets harder and harder for Henk at each stage. Dealing with Mirrorsoft is challenging enough before it escalates exponentially.

Henk finds out that Stein didn't actually have all the rights he sold to him. So Henk brings Nintendo into the picture, but that's not the end of his troubles.

The Elorg company in Russia owns the rights to Tetris because Alexey worked for it. Henk travels to Russia to try to sort things out and discovers just how convoluted Stein's deal with Elorg was.

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Henk's dealing with Elorg represents capitalism versus other systems of business, in this case communism. Elorg isn't interested in which party can pay them the most for Tetris. It wants the deal that's going to make Russia look strongest.

Elorg's Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Stefan) negotiates with Henk, while going back and forth with Stein. Henk points out a loophole that helps Belikov, but that only helps Belikov make a better deal with Stein, not with Henk.

The back-and-forth between Henk and Stein probably did not actually overlap on the same day, but it works as cinema. The film also maintains a sense of humor about Henk's culture clash in Russia.

Tetris is essentially the story of contract negotiations, but it is as exciting as corporate espionage. There are so many parties involved -- Henk, Stein, Mirrorsoft, Nintendo, Elorg and the Russian government - that nothing is straightforward. Alexey sending Henk a fax becomes Mission: Impossible.

As the protagonist, Henk has the most to lose as he's mortgaged his house for a bank loan to purchase the rights he thought he had. But, he's not just self-interested. He is legitimately trying to sort out corrupt deals.

Henk even helps Alexey improve Tetris with features that Tetris players now love. The film also captures the joy of playing the game in contrast with the oppression of companies and governments.

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Underneath the surface is a story of how video games transformed culture. When Nintendo introduced the handheld Game Boy, it was a boon to Henk's Tetris investment.

But, kids playing with handheld Nintendos was the first step toward everyone of all ages handling their phone, for gaming or other activities. That's all subtext.

Not every aspect of Tetris is 100% smooth. When Henk promises his daughter he'll attend her recital, it's a rather blatant setup to later show the Tetris deal distracts Henk from his family.

Fortunately, the more contrived aspects of the film move as fast as the rest of the film, so the viewer doesn't have to linger on them for too long.

Tetris may have the facts to back up a wild story of the effort it took to bring a simple game of falling blocks to the world. In executing it with such energy, the film illustrates the uphill battle any visionary faces, but it's a whole lot of fun.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001 and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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