I remember when I first played Tetris, the simple yet joyously addictive puzzle game created in 1984 by Soviet-born computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov. In 1989 the game came packed with Nintendo’s ambitious Game Boy hand-held game console. I was instantly hooked. Between it and a version released a few months later for Nintendo’s home console, there’s no telling how many hundreds of hours I’ve spent rotating and placing blocks in what would become one of the best selling video games of all-time.
But it’s what went on behind the game that turns out to be the most fascinating, specifically what it took to bring Tetris beyond the volatile Iron Curtain. The new fittingly named film “Tetris” from director Jon S. Baird sets out to tell that story. Noah Pink’s knock-out script drops us into the dull sounding world of licensing and publishing rights. But together with Baird, the two unwrap this remarkable true story that plays like a political, an espionage, and a corporate thriller all wrapped into one.
“Tetris” is a riveting film that’s sure to speak to any long-time fan of the game itself or the video game industry. There’s lots of fun industry lingo. There are some terrific 8-bit pixelated vignettes and title cards. There are some cool nods to early video game development. And there’s some rich history that serves as a window into the time when video games were exploding and on their way to becoming the lucrative entertainment juggernaut they are today.
But “Tetris” is also for anyone who simply loves good storytelling and filmmaking. Pink’s script is full of twists and turns. It’s ripe with corporate collusion, shaky loyalties, even shakier ethics, and shifting allegiances. But it also plays like a windy Cold War spy thriller, tapping into all sorts of late 1980s era political and cultural history. Baird attacks it all with a go-for-broke zest, infusing the film with a playful yet propulsive energy. It all makes for a funny, absorbing, and at times surprisingly thrilling ride.
The mostly real-life characters are portrayed by a fantastic cast led by the wonderfully vibrant Taron Egerton. He plays Henk Rogers and we first meet him at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. He’s there to sell his not-so-great video game GO to any interested parties. The problem is, there are no interested parties. Even his own salesgirl has ditched him for another game just a few spaces over. That’s where Henk is introduced to Tetris and he’s instantly smitten by the seemingly simple game of falling tetriminoes.
Seeing dollar signs, Henk uses the money he borrowed from the bank to fund his own failed video game and snatches up the PC and arcade rights for Tetris. But he quickly learns that obtaining licensing and distribution rights for a game made in the crumbling Soviet Union isn’t as easy as writing a check. And as word about the game spreads, Henk finds himself in a ruthless race against two other Western rivals to lockup Tetris, most notably the potentially bankable handheld rights that would allow it to be distributed with Nintendo’s new Game Boy console.
Racing against Henk is businessman Robert Stein, (Toby Jones), the owner of the British company Andromeda Software. Also in the hunt is billionaire media tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allum) and his entitled son Kevin (Anthony Boyle). Before long Henk, Stein, and the younger Maxwell are in communist Moscow courting the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov (portrayed by Nikita Efremov), a kindhearted programmer at the Soviet Computer Science Center. But more than him they need the ok of the Soviet government, and that’s no easy ask.
Soon the determined Henk and company are trying to win over a high-ranking government official (Igor Grabuzov), dodging a menacing yet undeniably greedy KGB agent (Oleg Shtedanko), figuring out a mysterious translation specialist (Sofya Lebedeva), and even convincing Mikhail Gorbachev himself (Matthew Marsh). The supporting cast does a great job bringing to life these characters, some with comically massive personalities. But the performances hit their marks, and Baird gives them plenty of scenes to shine.
I do wish more time had been given to Henk’s savvy and reasonably concerned wife Kimmy (a really good Ayana Nagabuchi). And it’s easy to get lost in all the heavy corporate chatter about licensing agreements and distribution rights. Thankfully the snappy pacing doesn’t give us time to dwell on how little it makes sense at times. And it’s so much fun bouncing around between Seattle, London, Tokyo, and Moscow, mostly with Taron Egerton who delivers a career best performance. He proves to be the perfect escort through this incredible blend of history and old-school thriller. In a nutshell, “Tetris” is a blast. “Tetris” premieres March 31st on Apple TV +.
How strange, I’ve just read another review slating this and it doesn’t even sound like the same movie! I guess different strokes for different folks! Not sure I’d watch this anyway, computer stuff on film never seems to work for me.
It definitely has some tech stuff in it. But it also has some wild Cold War thriller elements that really take it to places I wasn’t expecting. Especially in the second half. It’s no “John Wick: Chapter 4”, but it’s still worth a watch.
Yeah, I’m seeing this. Plus, I fucking love Tetris. One of the greatest video games….. EVER!!!!!
It was such a wonderful surprise. I didn’t know what to expect, but it more than delivers.
Glad to hear this one shines. Stuck it in my up next as soon as I saw the trailer.
It was such an unexpected blast. I wasn’t all that familiar with the history of the game. It’s a pretty wild story. The movie really captures it well.
Just watched it and my wife and I both enjoyed it very much. Talk about a nail biter in the third act! There were some flaws but it was a very entertaining movie.
Really surprising, right? The way they ratchet up the tension in that final act completely caught me off-guard (in a really good way).
Very surprising. Reminded me of how much I got into The Founder.