Apple’s movie Tetris tells a truly extraordinary story from the gaming history books: the time a scrappy video game promoter, Henk Rogers, battled Britain’s evil media moguls, Robert and Kevin Maxwell, to win the handheld rights to the greatest game of all time from a dying, paranoid Soviet Union. This is the unbelievable origin story of Game Boy Tetris, and it doesn’t seem like it should need embellishing.
But while the surprisingly tense contract negotiation scenes stick pretty close to the historical record, Tetris the movie is otherwise an unapologetically heightened version of the story. It’s a frothy Cold War thriller in which Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov takes the wheel for a climactic car chase, Rogers gets into a romantic scrape with a honeypot KGB agent, Robert Maxwell punches a Russian official in the face, and Nintendo executives Minoru Arakawa and Howard Lincoln run pell-mell through an airport, pursued by Soviet goons.
“We’re not doing this documentary version of [the Tetris story],” director Jon S. Baird tells Polygon. “There’s a really great documentary called From Russia With Love, which is available on YouTube. It’s a really great story, but, you know, to make a two-hour version of it, you need to sort of Hollywood-ize, if that’s a word, the tale.” Baird and screenwriter Noah Pink certainly did that with Tetris, in a brazen way that’s arguably cheesy and inauthentic, but could also be called disarmingly honest. You can’t really mistake Tetris’ spy-romp flourishes for the real thing.
Baird and Pink also had the support of the film’s subjects. “We got involved in the scriptwriting from the very beginning,” says Pajitnov. For our interview, the man himself was wearing a tie-dyed Tetris T-shirt and sitting next to his partner in crime, a tanned and bearded Rogers. (The pair founded The Tetris Company together after the events portrayed in the film.) “We did our part to make it as truthful as possible, but we always understood we needed to compromise on several points. At the end of the day, we have our lives squeezed into the very short two-hour movie, and some exaggeration is kind of natural at that point. But I want to say that, spiritually and emotionally, it’s a very right and very truthful story told from the screen.”
Baird echoes that: “We didn’t do anything without their knowledge… And Henk said, ‘Look, everything you’ve got is 100% true to the emotional journey that me and Alexey had.’ I thought it was a lovely way of saying, ‘Yeah, go on and and take artistic license.’”
Another bold though on-the-nose stylistic choice the filmmakers make is the use of 8-bit pixelated graphics to amp up exposition, action scenes, and establishing shots. Baird says it was a late decision to bring a nostalgic gaming flavor to a film that was originally styled purely as a thriller. “When we got in post, we thought, Well, we need to make nods toward the gaming industry, for gaming fans, so that came later. A lot of those ideas, Matthew [Vaughn, Kingsman director], our producer, had.”
Not all of Tetris is as outlandish as it seems. To unfamiliar viewers, the Maxwells — the bullying tycoon Robert and his odious son Kevin — may come across as sub-Succession cartoon villains. But British viewers with long memories will know their portrayals are actually quite true to life. In fact, one notable source reckons the villainy of the film’s version of Robert Maxwell is understated. “I talked to Kevin Maxwell before we shot the film, just to get his blessing that we could use his likeness,” Baird says. “And he said, ‘The one thing I would say is, you’ve not gone hard enough on my father. My father was way worse than you’ve got him.’”
Baird’s eye for casting smaller roles is one of the film’s saving graces. Oleg Shtefanko is brilliant as the Russian negotiator Nikolai Belikov, Ben Miles makes a perfectly smooth Howard Lincoln, and Togo Igawa nails the terrifyingly impassive Easter Island countenance of legendary Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Just because the film is heightened, it doesn’t mean the details shouldn’t be right, Baird says. “I’ve done a few true stories, and why not try and get everything as close as you can, you know? I try and do that across everything, across the accents, across the clothes, across everything, just try and get everything right. You’re not going to get everything right, but try,” he says.
Pajitnov and Rogers agree that, despite its fanciful elements, the movie (which was shot in Scotland) captures the atmosphere of Moscow in the late 1980s. For Rogers, this is the part of the film that feels closest to his lived experience. “The negotiation, the disorientation… You know, the Soviet Union [then] was kind of like North Korea is today,” Rogers says. “If you can imagine going to North Korea and trying to do a deal with somebody, you’re certainly breaking laws, you’re certainly going to get in trouble. And I felt that as I was moving around: I was testing what I could get away with and how far, all the time. Each time I got a little bit further, I said, OK, I can get away with that. Ooh, now I can go to somebody’s house! It’s like speeding and not getting caught.”
“That was a very dark time,” Pajitnov says. “The Soviet Union was ready to fall apart. At the same time, it was the Perestroika time, with lots of hope with Glasnost, with some kind of energy coming from the spreading of freedom. So it was a little bit hopeful. That’s why we were so courageous during this stuff, and kind of going against all this evil force.”
“On the last day when we signed the contract, you know, I wanted everybody to celebrate by having a drink of vodka,” Rogers says. “And it was illegal to drink inside of a government building at that point. And so they posted people at the windows and at the door, to make sure no one witnessed this.” Pajitnov chuckles at the memory. “Yeah, you remember!”
That isn’t James Bond levels of action-adventure, but it isn’t a typical business negotiation, either. Perhaps it’s a shame to lose credible details like this in favor of face-punching and car chases. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and it’s all just a bit of fun. Or perhaps, as Pajitnov says, the Tetris movie is just telling the truth the only way Hollywood knows how: with bells on.
Tetris premieres on Apple TV Plus on March 31.