by George Wood
When I first heard that there was going to be a new Tetris movie, my first thought was: how are they going to make a story out of giant blocks falling from the sky? Maybe an apocalyptic sci-fi movie, something not too far off from the widely maligned 2015 film Pixels? Or maybe a drama about someone who views and solves problems in life through the lens of interlocking Tetris blocks, like that one Simpsons gag?
Turns out that Tetris (2023) is about how the real-life events to get the titular video game licensed and distributed across the world in the late 1980s. Directed by Jon S. Baird (Filth, Stan & Ollie) and written by Noah Pink, the story follows the Dutch-American entrepreneur Henk Rogers (played by Taron Egerton) becoming embroiled in legal battles and Cold War tensions as he works with the game’s creator Alexey Pajitnov (played by Nikita Yefremov) to secure the intellectual property rights outside of the USSR.
The film is very much a legal procedural thriller, albeit with a peppy comedic tone. Stylistic flourishes help keep the globetrotting script going, such as the 8-bit animations that are used as establishing shots or introductions to characters, or the bursts of 80s pop classics from Blondie, Bonnie Tyler, Europe and The Pet Shop Boys, often played as Japanese or Russian cover versions. Some of the references to other videogames are a bit contrived, and the repeated use of ‘Holding Out for a Hero’ is fun but doesn’t really make sense in the context of Tetris, a game distinctly lacking any sort of protagonist.
The opening of the film throws a lot of dates and facts to get the audience up to speed with the state of Tetris in 1988. Expository dialogue rushes through how Pajitnov actually made Tetris, and how it was initially popularised throughout the USSR. Though the film does settle into a steadier pace, the meat of the story is wedded to the historical intricacies of duplicitous contract negotiations with battling corporate entities and shady KGB officers.
It feels like the film wants to be The Social Network with side order of John le Carré, except outside the machinations of the plot, the film is played far too broad to make those comparisons apt. Where David Fincher’s film brings out the egotism and greed in the pursuit of entrepreneurship, we’re not really meant to question the plucky endeavours of Egerton’s Henk Rogers in landing the perfect business deal. Egerton delivers a decent enough performance, but the script is weak at giving his character any sort of emotional arc, falling down on the very trope subplot of him missing his daughter’s school recital to generate personal conflict. The whitewashed casting here doesn’t help; Rogers is partly of Indonesian descent, which Egerton’s character says as much within the film.
Meanwhile, Roger Allam and Anthony Boyle play father-and-son businessmen, Robert and Kevin Maxwell, like they’re pantomime villains, while Toby Jones as the conniving capitalist Robert Stein is equally hammy in characterisation and performance. For a film very geopolitically-focused, characters often make tripe observations about capitalism and communism; history is painted in very broad strokes. Yefremov’s Pajitnov has to be an entirely virtuous victim of circumstance for the script to work, and the film might have been better suited with the game’s creator at the centre of the story rather than the Henk Rogers business middleman.
While a fascinating read on paper, the depiction of the legal battles fought to get the game distributed worldwide feels at times both a bit too broad in its character beats, and a bit too granular to be the definitive story of Tetris. Entertaining in the moment, but like a line of blocks from the game itself, Tetris disappears from memory after watching.
Currently in cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+