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Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
The wheels of the documentary begin turning when Robin Mihara, national third-place winner in the Nintendo World Championships, sets up a Classic Tetris World Championship in Los Angeles, CA. "Why would the biggest game in the world not have a world champion?" he reasons. Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris, adds: "Chess used to be an Olympic sport, so it's OK for a mental activity to be a matter of sports competition." Director Adam Cornelius follows Mihara as he begins tracking down classic Tetris champions to participate. Mihara's holy grail, though, is the player who bested him: Thor Aackerlund, a true Tetris master who claims to have seen Level 30 on NES Tetris, a feat that the other players believe might actually be impossible. Thor placed first in the Nintendo World Championships and then seemed to become a recluse, disconnected from classic gaming.
Unlike even Pac-Man or Donkey Kong, there's something about the combination of simplicity and complexity that makes Tetris a perfect subject. Plenty of people who will never pick up a console controller or even play something as simple as Asteroids will log hours of Tetris. (I'd call myself a casual gamer at best, but I'm sure my hours of Tetris is in the thousands -- I even stopped this documentary a couple of times because I had trouble watching Tetris without wanting to play it myself.) Cornelius skillfully explains some of the important rules and modes of Tetris without becoming too technical or boring; any audience member should have no trouble getting wrapped up in the joy of the game instantly.
Going hand-in-hand with the universal appeal of Tetris is a nice range of subjects. Harry Hong and Jonas Neubauer seem like your average gamers, but later we get people like Alex Kerr, who plays an obscure Japanese version of Tetris where the pieces disappear once placed, and Dana Wilcox, a punk-rock-looking lesbian chick who invites her acupuncturist to the competition. Although each of the players is unique and offers memorable stories about Tetris, this is a collection of focused, serious-minded players who treat Tetris like a sport, and nobody is as outsized or ridiculous as a Billy Mitchell. (Some card-playing smack talk with Kelly Flewin is a little awkward, but it's a brief moment.)
And if Tetris is a sport in the eyes of these players, then Ecstasy of Order has the build and anticipation of a good sports documentary. The arrival of all of these interesting people in one place is an exciting set up, and the thrill of the actual competition isn't cranked up or made more bombastic than it actually is. The film highlights the same qualities one would want from a good sports player: teamwork, good sportsmanship, friendly banter, underdogs, and a tense final showdown, all accentuated perfectly by Chris Pickolick's wonderful electronic score. Cornelius even has a surprise in store, which, as tacked-on as it may be, gets the adrenaline pumping. There will always be some people who won't be able to get into the excitement of watching others playing a video game, but anyone who's played Tetris -- which I'm sure is almost everybody -- should find something to enjoy about this entertaining little documentary.
Ecstasy of Order arrives in a plastic-saving Amaray case (no holes punched in it) designed to look like original NES cartridge packaging. I'm not sure the pictures capture the tone of the documentary clearly (could they?), but it's a nice-looking cover. Inside the case, there's even a chapter insert with an incomplete list of extras.
The Video and Audio
Presented in totally standard 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen and Dolby Digital 2.0 audio, Ecstasy of Order looks and sounds like you would expect a modern documentary to look and sound. The picture is decent, but lacks the fine detail and dimension of a 35mm production. Quality varies depending on the lighting conditions, and although some issues appear, many or all of them may be inherent to the source material. Sound is crisp and nicely recorded -- no airplanes or traffic drowning out the interviews here. This is not the kind of documentary that would necessarily benefit from a better picture or sound presentation, so there's no reason any of the natural deficiencies of consumer-grade digital should detract from the viewing experience, although the lack of subtitles and closed captioning on the disc is a little more disappointing.
First on the menu is deleted scenes. The first four ("Ben's 'Tetris Song'" - 2:11, "Extended Thor Interview" - 14:30, "Tetris Roundtable" - 2:36, and "Ben and Mary Rubik's" - 1:12) could actually be called deleted scenes. The last two are almost their own thing: the uncut footage from the final round of the Tetris World Championships (21:57), and another video that I actually shouldn't name (8:55), because it might constitute a spoiler. The inclusion of these last two clips is particularly nice.
Three "trailers" are next. The first two are actually not for Ecstasy of Order, but for other related projects: "Max-Out!" (13:02) is an entertaining mini-documentary about Harry Hong and his goal to max out on Level 19 of NES Tetris, and "Tetris Championship Promo" (2:36) is a video promoting the competition shown in the film's finale, complete with some familiar footage. Last but not least is the film's actual theatrical trailer.
The final extra on the DVD is not related to the film at all, but footage of another record: "Locksmith vs. Asteroids" (10:18) documents John McCallister attempting to break the world-record score of 41,336,440 points on Asteroids, which has stood since 1982. A fun bonus.
Ecstasy of Order packs both an engaging look at the lives of some of the world's best Tetris players, and the excitement of seeing them all come together to play against one another. The only thing that's likely to break viewer's attention is the deep, irresistible urge to play some Tetris themselves. Recommended.
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