Tetris premieres on Apple TV+ on March 31, 2023.
Using every trick in the book, including stretching the limits of what can be called a “true story,” Tetris manages to make international video game rights negotiations seem interesting. This convoluted film deals with Cold War paranoia on the verge of Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation by telling the insanely tangled story of how Tetris game cartridges reached worldwide customers. It’s a litigation drama masquerading as a flashy political thriller in which companies like Bullet-Proof Software and Nintendo find themselves in a treacherous bidding war that writer Noah Pink and director Jon S. Baird attempt to adapt into an entertaining story jazzed up with Hollywood exaggerations, to overwhelming results.
Taron Egerton stars as the eventual real-life Tetris Company, Inc. founder Henk Rogers, who we meet as a struggling publisher living in Tokyo before some falling digital blocks changed his life. Egerton plays the part with business-savvy charisma and unstoppable tenacity, carrying scene after scene where the most exciting development might be convincing Russian tech company managers to sign on the dotted lines. He’s the American agent infiltrating Russia, except he’s just a businessman trying to start a megacorporation if he can secure the proper licenses.
Supporting players feel more like outlined stereotypes next to his star power, from Roger Allam’s portrayal of sleazy Mirrorsoft owner Robert Maxwell to Oleg Stefan as Russian Elorg director Nikolai Belikov. Egerton’s performance feels like he’s always fighting against the sped-up music in the game when the pieces stack up and almost smash into the ceiling, but he pushes through, carrying Tetris with underdog charms like he’s done in other movies (such as the impressively heartwarming Eddie the Eagle).
Tetris piles on enough legal jargon to bog down any political statements.
It’s tough to keep track of the names of all of these now-defunct companies, from Henk’s Bullet-Proof Software to Andromeda, headed by Robert Stein (Toby Jones plays to his strengths as a snakey partner). Baird does his best to explain all the complications that arise, not only between five separate companies (Bullet-Proof, Elorg, Andromeda, Mirrorsoft, and Nintendo) but also the trickier situation when console, arcade, computer, and handheld rights are all thrown on the table at once. Sometimes the director’s best effort isn’t good enough, and Tetris piles on enough legal jargon to bog down any political statements about communist Russia’s oppressive 1980s nature. Baird ultimately cobbles together a semi-biographical dramedy that tells a unique story through a gamer lens that tries a bit too hard, even though its history lesson elements can feel like a Saturday morning cartoon version.
It’s too much happening at once, which can have a numbing effect. Tetris is a ping-pong match that bounces between overstuffed corporate information dumps and meta video game entertainment, one minute burying us in character introductions, threatening Henk’s life like something out of a Jason Bourne movie the next. Back-alley interrogations that should be laced with tension barely raise an eyebrow, yet Henk’s conversations about dollar signs and royalties somehow hit the right notes. Tetris tries to have its Succession-style darkness while being as bright and joyful as an 8-bit side scroller, which becomes a strange mix of tones, especially with the Russian themes that feel like they have nothing substantial to say beyond, “The KGB sure was bad, huh?”
Lorne Balfe’s original score is an early frontrunner for my favorite of the year.
Everything gets awfully batty as Henk Rogers is presented as a fearless cowboy risking his life to secure Tetris’ handheld console rights. Baird uses colorful pixelated graphics that resemble early Nintendo-era games to introduce each chapter in the story — aptly referred to as “Levels” – to make Tetris feel like an adventurous quest with treasure at the finish. Lorne Balfe’s original score, meanwhile, is an early frontrunner for my favorite of the year; the familiar notes of Tetris’ stage background music bounce around Balfe’s compositions like smooth Synthwave jams or quirky chip-tune remixes. There are so many strides taken to make this movie feel like a video game despite its dry nature – characters are introduced as players, and game-ripped sound effects like bricks breaking or punches landing distort reality – all of which add an element of fun that a contract-negotiation story like Tetris would sorely lack otherwise.
Even the car chase, where Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) plays wheelman for Henk and two Nintendo dealmakers as corrupt KBG officials tail behind – a purely fabricated event – finds its place in Baird’s movie because it’s played for laughs (a Russian cover of “Holding Out For A Hero” hilariously blares). It’s all so daffy, but the director ensures we know that’s the point.
Tetris is an improbable and ridiculous movie about the first Russian video game to break through the Iron Curtain and into the global mainstream. Director Jon S. Baird does his darndest to make legal paperwork drama into something we might find thrilling, and does succeed at livening up what could have been a montage of boardroom discussions into a jet-setting and dangerously daring adventure that heavily emphasizes the “based on” in “based on a true story.” The biggest problem is always how much information there is to cover between capitalist megacorporations with Russian ties to swindling buyers of intellectual properties, and how it all just keeps being such a chore to follow in chronological order. Taron Egerton is unsurprisingly a dashing lead in this tonally jumbled rat race with shady government conspiracies – a strangely messy yet decent watch with a farfetched story about video game history gone haywire.