This week, Threshold Entertainment Group, the production company that turned the Mortal Kombat video-game series into a pair of feature films back in the nineties, announced that it was in the early stages of a new project: a movie based on the beloved video game Tetris. The online response to the news, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was marked by a mix of confusion, skepticism, and derision. How could the movements of a bunch of faceless, lifeless objects be the basis for a narrative film? (Remember “Battleship”?) “It’s a very big, epic sci-fi movie,” Threshold’s C.E.O., Larry Kasanoff, told the Journal. “This isn’t a movie with a bunch of lines running around the page. We’re not giving feet to the geometric shapes.” The people at Tetris were equally vague. In a press release, the company said, “In this new universe, as you’ll soon find out, there’s much more to Tetris than simply clearing lines.”
“The response was not surprising, because how the hell are you going to make a movie out of Tetris?” Kasanoff told me on Thursday. He declined to offer any specifics about the story, but said that it would be a live-action movie. “When you make a movie out of a video game, you don’t make it of the game itself, but you try to figure out what is the essence of that game,” Kasanoff said. “And then you go up a level on the food chain to tell a story.” For the nature of that essence, he pointed to what Henk Rogers, the founder of the Tetris Company, once identified as the game’s appeal: that it speaks to people’s desire to create order out of chaos.
This raises some questions: Will the movie feature the game’s seven famous shapes, known as “tetriminos”? If so, will they be good or evil? Could they be spaceships that arrive near Earth and interlock to form a super ship, bent on our destruction? Or will the large shapes simply start falling from the sky before latching onto buildings and blowing them up, in a kind of choreographed meteor shower?
That last idea comes from “Pixels,” a short film by Patrick Jean, in which characters from nineteen-eighties video games—Tetris, Pac Man, Space Invaders, Pong, Donkey Kong—attack New York City and leave it, and later the entire Earth, in a lifeless, pixelated state. Jean’s eerie short is inventive and oddly funny, but it’s also meditative, furthering a “Matrix”-like argument about the ways in which our virtual worlds might come to consume us. This solemn tone is unlikely, however, to survive in the big-budget Hollywood version of “Pixels” that the short inspired, which is due in May of 2015 and will star Adam Sandler. The shapes from Tetris won’t be raining down on New York (being engaged, it seems, elsewhere), but characters from Donkey Kong, Frogger, and various Atari games will appear. The movie’s producers told Variety that getting signoff from the rights-holders of these classic characters was essential. As one producer said, “We approached them with a deep love for their characters and a respect for the elements that make them unique and iconic, and we’ve worked with the companies to incorporate those elements into the film.” In other words, prepare for a heavy dose of 8-bit-nostalgia marketing next year.
Kasanoff, in his interview with the Wall Street Journal, also noted that “brands are the new stars of Hollywood.” This earned him special ridicule from online commenters, but Kasanoff told me that he doesn’t consider his statement to be cynical. “Back in the studio days, Humphrey Bogart and Betty Grable were brands,” he said. “They were people with a personality that was managed, and were recognized and could draw audiences. Before them, Mickey Mouse was a brand. And now Transformers is a brand.”
There is, however, a difference between cultivating an actor’s personal brand to sell movie tickets and creating a movie entirely based on an existing brand of game or toy. A movie like “Pixels” hardwires its notions of brand synergy into its very story; it couldn’t exist without the famous video-game characters that will serve as its villains. The same idea is true for “The Lego Movie”; for “Wreck-It Ralph,” from 2012, which featured fictional video-game characters alongside real-life stars like Sonic the Hedgehog; and even for the “Toy Story” franchise, which has featured winking appearances from toys ranging from Mr. Potato Head to Barbie.
All of these films have been praised for their clever story lines and their sometimes surprisingly deep characters; they are good movies, even if their provenance is based on calculated corporate motives. They show themselves to be wryly aware of the irony that their very existence as movies is based on toys. Still, there is something troubling in how these films suggest a kind of culture-wide creative exhaustion. Can’t we think of anything new? Why must every character be required to have a market share? This week, an all-star vocal cast was announced for the upcoming animated Angry Birds movie. Last year, New York magazine provided a few possible scenarios for a Candy Crush feature film. It was a joke, but perhaps it won’t be one for long.
But not every brand-based movie is a sure hit, something that Kasanoff knows better than most. He was the producer and director of the animated movie “Foodfight!,” which featured more than eighty familiar product mascots—including Mr. Clean, Chef Boyardee, and SkarKist’s Charlie the Tuna—who join forces with an original character named Dex Dogtective (voiced by Charlie Sheen!) to protect a grocery store from an invasion of Nazi-like soldiers. The marketing tie-ins were clear; the trailer announces that the movie is “a battle between the world’s most beloved brands and the forces of darkness.” But “Foodfight!” was a flop. It took ten years and tens of millions of dollars to produce, but failed to make it to theatres; it was released, finally, on DVD last year. The reviews were notably harsh. (Kasanoff said that he had been discouraged from talking about the project because of legal issues, but explained that “Foodfight!” lost some of its backing during the financial crisis, and had therefore never been properly completed.)
In a way, however, there has already been a Tetris movie. For many of the millions of us who have played the game since its introduction, thirty years ago, it is the one that flickered on the backs of our closed eyes, long after we’d shut off the screens of our computers, GameBoys, and, later, smartphones. There were persistent, perhaps unwanted but also familiar, images of falling, rotating blocks, moving to form and then clearing lines off the screens in our minds. The writer Jeff Goldsmith is credited with naming this condition the “Tetris effect,” and it also spills over into real life, when people begin to consider the objects around them as puzzle pieces that can be rotated and fitted together: the world as a game.
The Tetris story most worth making into a feature film, meanwhile, is the true one. It would tell the story of how, in 1984, a Russian computer engineer named Alexey Pajitnov created what may be the greatest consumer product of the Soviet era. What began as a pet project at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, in Moscow, became, in a matter of just a few years, one of the most popular computer games in the world. By the late eighties, two major multinational corporations, Atari and Nintendo, were locked in a frenzied bidding war with the Soviet government over rights to the game, which later spilled over into a prolonged legal battle. Nintendo won, and in 1989 it packaged the game with its new GameBoy handheld console, putting it in the hands of its widest audience yet.
My own introduction to the game came, as for millions of others, from that first GameBoy edition. Along with its visual power, Tetris harnessed the compelling effect of repetitive sound: the beeps of the moving tetriminos, the clacking sound when a piece landed in place, the beam-up sound made by reaching a new level, and the strange, R2-D2 noises of a “tetris,” clearing four lines at once. Behind all these was the main theme song, one of three options, playing on a loop and getting faster as the game moved up each level: “Korobeiniki,” which, thanks to Tetris, is surely the most famous nineteenth-century Russian folk song of all time. Hearing the song now has the effect not just of stimulating memory but of reëstablishing an entire frame of mind.
Is this the desire to create order out of chaos? And could a Tetris movie explore it? We’ll see. But one result of the intimacy created by Tetris is that it feels small and personal, rather than the starting point for a science-fiction spectacular. As the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov, told Jeff Goldsmith, in 1994, “For me, Tetris is some song which you sing and sing inside yourself and can’t stop.”
By Ian Crouch, New Yorker