Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters Movie Review: The Pieces Fall Perfectly into Place

I could’ve watched an entire movie about Thor Aackerlund and been perfectly happy.
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Originally designed and programmed by Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris is one of the most popular video games ever created.  Since its initial release in 1984, some variation of the game has been released on pretty much every video-game console, operating system, graphing calculator, PDA and mobile phone in existence.  So it stands to reason that you’ve probably wasted more than a few hours on the game and maybe you’ve even referred to yourself as a “master” at some point.  It’s easy to throw the term around, but have you ever really wondered who the real Tetris Masters are?  Who are the Kasparovs and Fischers of the Tetris world?  In an attempt to legitimize the game as a sport and crown an undisputed champion, Robin Mihara set out on a quest to gather the greatest Tetris players in the world to determine who truly deserved the title of Tetris Master.  This is the story of Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters.

Ecstasy of Order The Tetris Masters posterAmong the competitors in the 2010 Classic Tetris World Championship are the only players known to have reached the “Max Out” score of 999,999 points, two players with the records for most lines, and a couple of newcomers who have earned a spot in the prestigious tournament.  After introducing us to these players and learning a bit about their backgrounds, the film sheds light on the story of Thor Aackerlund, 1990 Nintendo World Champion and Tetris legend.  Besides having one of the sweetest names in recorded history, the enigmatic Mr. Aackerlund also comes equipped with his own legend.  After destroying the competition as a 14-year-old prodigy, Thor did a few endorsements and has spent the majority of his life as something of a recluse.  His claims of reaching the elusive 30th level of the game remain unverified and his intentions in this event are unknown.  But the shadow he casts upon the tournament is almost tangible. 

I’ll be totally honest here: I could’ve watched an entire movie about Thor Aackerlund and been perfectly happy.  Which is not to say that this movie wasn’t enjoyable; it was great.  But the human-interest story is the one that always draws you in, and even though we got to know each of the other players on a personal level, nothing compared to Thor’s story.  While I found it incredibly interesting to learn the various strategies employed by each player and get a brief history on how each of them was introduced to the game, nothing compared to the mixture of fear, jealousy, and reverence heaped upon Thor Aackerlund by everyone else in the film.  I had only a vague knowledge of who the man was before watching Ecstasy of Order, but in under two hours, his legend was cemented in my mind.

Hopefully the filmmakers have enough extra footage (and common sense) to whip up a sequel focusing on the storied legend and mythological status of Thor Aackerlund, but until then we’ll just have to make due with what we got, which is an incredibly compelling look at Tetris and the people who have made it a way of life.  In addition to discussing Tetris strategies, one of the most interesting aspects of this film was the common ground shared by each of the players as well as, I suspect, many of the viewers.  Tetris isn’t just a game; it’s a family affair.  The majority of the competitors were introduced to the game by their parents, most of whom were nearly as obsessed with the game as their children.  Indeed, my own mother was an avid devotee of the game and logged nearly as many hours as myself or my siblings.  The “Tetris Effect” was discussed and even if you’ve never heard the term before, I suspect I don’t have to define it for you.  Dreaming of falling tetrominoes, envisioning moving buildings in order to clear lines, hallucinating and even bagging groceries can all be categorized under the Tetris Effect.  I’ve experienced it, each of the competitors in this film have experienced it, and odds are good you have as well.

It is this commonality that really drew me into this movie.  While I have never reached the astonishing scores these players have reached and I am almost totally unfamiliar with much of the terminology they use, I am all too familiar with the zen-like state of mind one experiences while becoming absorbed in the game as well as the obsessive nature of game play.  The film discusses the community that has sprung up around Tetris and at the risk of sounding foolish, I would dare say that that community extends much farther than even the filmmakers suspect.  Honestly - do you know anyone who hasn’t played Tetris?  A lot of Tetris?

Because of this common ground, I feel that Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters isn’t a documentary strictly made for geeks and gamers, but a film that can be enjoyed by anyone.  While the film might focus a bit too much on terminology and strategy, it makes up for it by just being an interesting movie about a topic anyone can relate to.  And I’ll be damned if a few of the lessons and strategies utilized by the competitors can’t be applied to regular everyday life as well.  Bottom line: the pieces fell perfectly into place with this movie.  Check it out.

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