THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"ECSTASY OF ORDER: THE TETRIS MASTERS"
Anyone who has ever played Tetris knows two things: 1.) it's highly addictive; and 2.) if you play it enough, you start to see shape patterns everywhere, and even dream of them. (I can attest to this from personal experience.) No surprise, then, that some people spend hours and hours and hours perfecting the game. The documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, directed by Adam Cornelius, presents some of the best and most dedicated players you could ever meet.
The film largely follows Tetris freak Robin Mihara, who sets out to organize a competition to declare a world champion. Using the noted videogame website Twin Galaxies as his source, he invites the highest-scoring players he can find to take part. These players tell their tales – how they discovered the game, how much time they spend perfecting it, what their strategies are, etc. The most fascinating competitor is Thor Aackerlund who, as a kid, was named Nintendo World Champion and spent years doing endorsements. Thor repeatedly makes claims to Robin that he's smashed all kinds of Tetris records, but since he suspiciously has no photographic proof, his credibility is doubted. During the course of the documentary, Thor talks about the troubled life he led after his childhood victory and eventually reveals some surprising things about his skills.
Watching Ecstasy of Order, I actually learned a couple of things about Tetris that I did not know. For starters, it's possible to max out the game. The highest score possible is 999,999. After that, the counter goes to all zeroes and stops keeping track. I also didn't know that there's a Level 30. It's common knowledge among Tetris buffs that Level 29 drops the pieces so fast that there's literally no time to move them all the way over to the sides. For that reason, it's widely considered impossible to beat. As it turns out, Level 30 exists, and there's a special way to get to it.
Docs about highly specialized skills have become fairly common in recent years. I've seen them centered around Irish dancers, Scrabble players, spelling bee participants, and more. Still, many of them are quite engrossing, this one included. The players we meet are pretty diverse; some of them fit the stereotype of a person who spends all day playing a videogame, while others go squarely against that stereotype. As you would anticipate, Ecstasy of Order ends with the competition itself. Because all the participants are so good, any of them could win, giving the movie some legitimate suspense.
The thing that keeps Ecstasy of Order from entering the top tier of competition-based documentaries is that it doesn't find an original center. The obvious comparison is to Seth Gordon's The King of Kong, which depicted a genuinely intense rivalry between nice guy Steve Wiebe and apparently self-enchanted “villain” Billy Mitchell. The Wiebe/Mitchell feud brought drama, in addition to an intense desire on the part of the audience to root for one guy over the other. I don't think this movie should have manufactured anything unreal, but without any kind of unique angle, it exists as an entertaining and competent account of the Tetris championship that will appeal to fans of the game, as opposed to a must-see human drama that will appeal even to the non-player.
Focus on those words “entertaining” and “competent,” though. Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is indeed a film worth seeking out. When it was over, I had the strong desire to run to my Nintendo Wii and play some Tetris. And isn't that exactly the reaction a movie like this should want to induce?
( out of four)
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is unrated but contains some adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!