‘Tetris’ Review: Taron Egerton Fights the Soviet Union… for Video Game Rights

16 March 2023

No, no, it’s not a movie like the titular video game, it’s a movie about the titular video game. Tetris? The ’80s-game Tetris? That gets a whole film about its creation? Wouldn’t blocks falling from above be more dramatic? Well, actually… the creation, discovery, and licensing of Tetris is kind of wild (first hint: it was made by a Soviet software engineer long before the Soviet Union collapsed). But, spoiler alert: It’s not wild enough to engender an often weirdly straightforward historical dramedy dedicated to its legend.

But dammit if director Jon S. Baird and star Taron Egerton don’t do their damndest to fit these disparate pieces together (sorry) into a cohesive story. If nothing else, you’ll walk away from “Tetris” knowing a heck of a lot more about the game and the many (dare we say, too many) people who battled each other for the opportunity to bring it to the masses. (Fans of intricate stories about the ins and outs of licensing intellectual property, hello! This thing is entirely for you, plus kicky 8-bit animated graphics.)

That’s not to say that “Tetris” doesn’t have some fun. Baird deploys said kicky 8-bit animated graphics from the film’s opening (introducing our key characters as “players”) to a slew of travel-by-map moments that hopscotch from Seattle to Tokyo to Moscow and back again (and again and again). But there’s a lot of meat on this bone, certainly much more than most people would expect for a film, again, about a blocky video game. Noah Pink’s screenplay struggles to distill it all while keeping the entire effort moving.

Wisely, Pink turns his focus to Dutch video game designer and publisher Henk Rogers (still working to this day), who stumbles across Tetris at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and is immediately smitten. For Henk (Taron Egerton), it’s “the perfect game” and when he snaps up the video game and arcade rights (in Japan only, one of many intricate bits of contractual wrangling that “Tetris” will dive deep into), he sees nothing but a golden future for him and his beloved game. Oh, Henk!

Henk offers the actor a natty combination platter that suits his charms: one part biopic, one part spy-ish thriller, all of it hinging on his cowboy-style charm. Henk is a nice dude, kind of a hustler, a big dreamer, and when he buys the rights to Tetris, he hopes it will help build the life he wants for his family (including his wife and partner Akemi, played by Japanese star Ayane). Too bad about all those other guys, who also own the rights to Tetris.

Time for the history: Tetris was created by a Soviet government employee named Alexey Pajitnov (played in the film by Russian star Nikita Efremov, who looks distractingly like “Point Break” remake star Luke Bracey). It was such a lo-fi hit with his countrymen — this thing got shared on floppy disks — that when Andromeda Software head Robert Stein (Toby Jones, doing a lot with a little) came sniffing around, Russia let him license it. And then he licensed it to eventually disgraced media moguls Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his striving son Kevin (Anthony Boyle). And then Henk  thought he had the license.

It doesn’t really matter. All these ins and outs will be covered throughout “Tetris,” particularly during an exceedingly long middle stretch that mostly takes place in some of the most depressing Soviet-era conference rooms you’ve ever seen. All you need to know: Henk, desperate to lock the rights to Tetris (especially the hand-held ones, once he gets a lead on Nintendo’s plans for its game-changing Game Boy), heads to Russia to bargain with the people in charge directly.

It goes about as well as could be reasonably expected. The KGB gets involved. There are endless scenes of English being translated to Russian and back again. Every phone is tapped. Gorbachev shows up! Somewhere there’s a kicky portmanteau that describes the film as a combo of “Super Mario Bros.” and “Argo” — “Super M-Argo Bros.”? — at the climax, our heroes run through an airport to escape Moscow on an international flight that’s taking just a smidge too long to take off. It’s a nail-biting moment that does feel an awful like Ben Affleck’s thriller, likely by design.

It’s simultaneously too much and too little (let’s not even get into the sub-subplot about Henk missing his daughter Maya’s school recital, a trope so overused it almost doubles back on itself), but it is a wacky bit of history that is entertaining in fits and starts. No, not all the pieces fit together, and it certainly doesn’t speed up as the game winds on (something it might have done well to emulate from the game itself), but it’s got players worth rooting for and a story that keeps leveling up. It won’t stick in your brain like the game (who doesn’t still see those little blocks floating ever-downward?), but what else possibly could?

Grade: C+

“Tetris” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It will start streaming on AppleTV+ on Friday, March 31.

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