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The True-ish Story of Tetris


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TETRIS. When, after a trying workday, my wife set about retiring to another room with a book and a cat, as is her wont, I did not intend to deter her. But when I suggested I might watch a movie based on Tetris, she stopped abruptly. When I continued that it starred Taron Egerton, she reversed course and settled on the couch. Which is unsurprising but also telling: Who doesn't love Tetris? And Egerton, at least since we were introduced to him in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), has been a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, figure to watch.

For the sake of transparency, had this movie been about literally any other videogame, it's unlikely to the point of improbability that I would have bothered pushing play. But Tetris, so transcendent in its simplicity, so evocative of elements both primal and consummately evolved in our psychology, has been one of the few objects of gamer-like fixation in my lifetime. It is, in fact, the only game I've had the wherewithal to complete — on a Gameboy Advance, no less! — although that may have been due as much to the game's addictiveness as to the hit-or-miss focusing powers of cannabinoids. Regardless, the world's favorite Russian puzzle drug has me among its junkies; I would gladly have turned up at the theater to learn about its origins, which suggests something interesting about the recent evolution (?) of popular culture, the movies and how we consume them.

A decade ago, Argo (2012) was the big winner at the Academy Awards and it did not come as a surprise. A big, sturdy, self-congratulatory picture with a movie star (Ben Affleck) playing against his handsomeness, it represents one of the primary archetypes of 20th century American moviemaking, all the more because it opens with a title card proclaiming it to have been based on actual events (as does Tetris). That sort of thinly veiled bullshit serving as the most potent of catnips to our highly attuned, decidedly simple viewing minds. We love a true story, even as we understand that, in the telling, it becomes something other than the truth. It becomes a different true story altogether, the truth being the agreed upon lie.

Argo was also a big hit despite describing events that occurred more than 30 years before its release.

Jumping back to the present, "true" crime "storytelling" saturates our collective consciousness, much as movies and literature did, once upon a time. Be it in the form of a podcast, a limited series, a magazine show or even (gasp!) a book with pages, Based on a True Story has become dominant. But the True Story better have happened right quick, or Too Long (Ago), Didn't Read (or Listen or Watch). We're still entertainment-based organisms but we want to see how the human sausage is made, to approach the mind of a killer without coming close enough to grapple with understanding.

And so Tetris, a thriller very much in the mold of Argo (itself an echo of any number of 1970s intrigue classics), has been released quietly on Apple TV.

I'm wrestling with a thesis here about the topicality of contemporary media, how a fresh, if intentionally old-fashioned movie, even one about a videogame, is relegated to a limited audience just because it is set in the distant past (the late 1980s). And I'm offering the Best Picture winner of 10 years ago, about an incident some but not all of the audience would have remembered, as an example of transition. But then, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves seems to be performing well, so maybe the old nerds are having their day, after all. Tetris is actually an exciting (if highly exaggerated) version of actual events, though, so maybe my nebulous idea holds.

By the confluence of happy accidents and naked ambition, Japan-based coder turned software publisher Henk Rogers (Egerton) stumbles onto Tetris, a then-viral phenomenon developed by Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). Exploiting the active dissolution of the Soviet Union, some unscrupulous people are able to export the game — each pair of hands through which it passed crafting some new grift — to more widely distribute and monetize it. Rogers, presented here as a person of integrity to match his drive, heads to Moscow to wrestle the bear, in the process befriending Pajitnov and falling afoul of Russian intelligence, an English billionaire father and son, and a weaselly rival publisher (the great Toby Jones).

This clearly seems to be a heightened version of these events, but it's executed with no small nuance and aplomb by director Jon S. Baird (Stan & Ollie, 2018; Filth, 2013), working from a screenplay by Noah Pink. It suggests the wellspring of excitement the game has created in its users, rushing forward with a deliciously addictive pace and humor. And, more subversively, it quietly examines the end of the Soviet era, and what the slow death of revolution and the hypocrisy of governments can and will do the people of a given nation. R. 118M. APPLE+.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.


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Fortuna Theatre is temporarily closed due to earthquake damage. For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema (707) 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre (707) 822-3456.


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