Tetris stars Taron Egerton as the man who helped bring the now-ubiquitous video game to the rest of the world. But at what cost?
There’s something truly special about playing Tetris. Even almost 40 years after its creation, the game’s simplicity still manages to be thrilling and captivating. Nothing beats the surprise when an unexpected shape forces us to change our gameplan. Or that joy when a vertical piece lets us clear the carefully assembled lines. From its rather uncomplicated structure, it might not be easy to see how the story behind this game’s rise could be full of international intrigue and dramatic business negotiations, but Apple TV+’s latest film Tetris manages, despite some hiccups, to put the pieces together in an entertaining thriller about the origin of a beloved worldwide video-game phenomenon.
Directed by Jon S. Baird, the film follows Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a Dutch businessman in financial trouble who falls in love with Tetris after stumbling upon it at the 1988 Consumer Electronic Show. Rogers sees the game’s potential and convinces his banker to buy the distribution rights in Japan as he charms his way into a partnership with Nintendo. But in doing so, he creates even more money problems for his family.
To make matters worse, Rogers eventually discovers that the true nature of Tetris’ distribution rights is tangled in a network of shady business dealings between Andromeda Software’s Robert Stein (Toby Jones), the British media tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), and even more perilously, the Soviet Union. To secure distribution rights, Rogers heads to Moscow himself despite all warnings. With the help of his translator Sasha (Sofia Lebedeva) and his unlikely friendship with Tetris’ creator Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), he has to navigate tense political waters and an always leery KGB if he hopes to save his family’s livelihood and help give the game’s creator a more hopeful future.
An unusual angle on the Soviet Union
Tetris shines in the way it encapsulates the zeitgeist of the late 80s and early 90s. The world in Tetris is on the brink of changing drastically, and the film does a phenomenal job of showing it with dramatic camera angles, 8-bit stylistic flair, and (naturally) 80s pop songs. All evoking the feeling of an impending shift in both technology and culture. There’s a scene where Rogers holds a Nintendo Game Boy as if it were the Holy Grail. The dramatic cinematography as he briefly controls Mario on the black and white screen serves as a reminder that our present was once a bold promise. Furthermore, Egerton’s charming and confident but not overpowered depiction of Henk adds a layer of realism to what could easily be a story of an almost super-human salesman outsmarting a failing totalitarian regime.
Compared to other films, Tetris takes a different approach when it explores the last years of the Soviet experiment. There are plenty of depictions of economic hardships in Moscow with long lines for food and increasingly long waiting times for international phone calls. In traditional films of this genre, Soviet antagonists rely on the notion of an omnipresent and all-powerful authoritarian state. While there’s some of that, Tetris shows how Russian bureaucrats shift their motivations from the usual Cold War narratives to the desperation of scrapping the pot before the imminent collapse of the political world they’ve known their whole lives. It’s a fresher and far scarier take.
That desperation greatly contrasts the bubbling desire of the Soviet population to join the international community. There’s a wonderful sequence in a nightclub where Henk parties with Alexey and other Muscovites while singing Europe’s The Final Countdown as an activist shouts news of the independence movement rising in the Soviet states. Tetris walks a fine line balancing the entertaining aspects of a Cold War thriller without the monolithic and reductionist depictions of ideologies. It pulls this off by shifting its focus to broader human themes like greed and perseverance and avoiding the cliche of equating all of the Soviet Union with evil and all of the West with goodness.
Yes, the film takes ample creative liberties with the truth of what actually happened. But Tetris stays fairly accurate in how these tense negotiations with Soviet officials tend to play out. Screenwriter Noah Pink barely fits all the different pieces of the legal puzzle together in a messy first act that, even with the 8-bit signposting, requires very careful attention to understanding all the different parts. Once audiences get past that, the film settles into its Moscow-based Cold War politicking, aided by a charming soundtrack by British composer Lorne Balfe. All building to Tetris joining the Sonic the Hedgehog films and HBO’s The Last of Us as yet another great addition to the surprisingly good video-game inspired media in recent years. Not bad for a story about a game without a story.
Tetris is available for streaming on AppleTV+. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Apple TV+
TETRIS - 7.5/10