What do you get when you mix up spy-thriller intrigue/tension with 80s bravado, humor, a dash of heartwarming, and an unbelievable true story? You get the Tetris movie.
On the surface, you wouldn’t think much about a movie called Tetris. The game may be iconic, but it’s simplicity doesn’t exactly scream “movie material.” The reality behind how this classic game made its way out of the Soviet Union and into millions of households worldwide, however…now that’s a different story.
Directed By: Jon S. Baird
Written By: Noah Pink
Starring: Taron Egerton, Toby Jones, Nikita Yefremov, Roger Allam, Anthony Boyle
Release Date: March 31, 2023 on Apple TV+
The history of Tetris, how it was created by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov (portrayed by Nikita Yefremov), and how it ultimately made it’s way out of the country is the stuff of legends. Truly, I could tell you all the basic steps of the story (I won’t because that will ruin the film) and you absolutely would think it’s a work of fiction. It’s a major reason the tale remains such a compelling one, and exactly why it’s perfect for a movie.
To say things were, complicated, when it came to acquiring the rights to Tetris outside of the USSR is putting it mildly. The Soviets weren’t keen on sharing their stuff with the outside world, but as the Cold War began to wind down in the late 80s, there was a shift. People began seeing the writing on the wall, with many (regardless of their ‘loyalty’) eager to make the best of a bad situation and get as much as they could before it all went down.
At the same time, the video game industry was hitting it’s stride and companies around the globe were eager to get in on the action, even as the next generation loomed. Nintendo was the undisputed top dog at the moment with the wild success of the NES system, and publishers/devs around the world were eager to find the next big game.
Enter Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a somewhat down on his luck publisher looking for the big score. By chance (fate perhaps?) he comes across Tetris at a Consumer Electronics Show, and the discovery changes his life. Seeing the opportunity as his break into the “big leagues” of the gaming industry, Rogers bets his future (and literally his house) on the game.
There’s just a few issues…Namely, the licensing rights to Tetris aren’t exactly clear cut. Who has them, how they got them, and who gets them next is a tangled web of intrigue and double-dealing that takes Henk into the heart of the Soviet Union and potentially threatens the lives of him, his family, and others…
Yeah, it’s pretty wild. I know I’m being more vague than usual here, but there’s so many twists and turns to the story I’m genuinely reluctant to touch upon any of them. To be honest, if you haven’t heard the true story behind this yet, I strongly suggest NOT looking anything up until after you’ve seen the movie. It makes for some compelling viewing.
Yes, being that it’s a movie, there are elements that have clearly been exaggerated or sanitized. That’s to be expected. The main points, however, and the multiple double-crosses/reveals are all based in fact. So yeah, it’s still an incredibly wild story even if you take some of the embellishments out.
No matter how you approach the film, just when you think you know what’s going on, another curveball is thrown at you. The film makes excellent use of this to continually build the tension throughout. It starts off feeling like a fairly straightforward true story tale, but things start escalating quickly. By the time you hit the halfway point, you’re sucked into the characters and action, which makes the (surprisingly action packed) finale all the more impactful. Truly, it left me breathless.
It strongly evokes the vibes of those older Cold War era spy flicks, in both terms of intrigue and tension. More recently, a comparison I kept coming back to with the movie was Argo. While Tetris certainly doesn’t take itself as seriously as Argo does, both manage to bring that same sense of tension and “countdown” factor to it all.
One of the things I loved most about Tetris is how is manages to balance the humor and heart even among the more serious moments. Taron Egerton is phenomenal; managing to bring the charm and even a touch of naivety to the the performance that makes it impossible to NOT root for Henk in the long run. That said, everyone does an impressive job in the film, with even the “villains” balancing genuine menace and over-the-top villainy in equal measure.
I honestly wasn’t expecting the film to hit so hard on the emotional level. Even as it pulls from the 80s movie period films, complete with Russian bad guys, it takes time to showcase the individuals within the story. Without spoilers, there’s a moment in the film when Henk and Alexey are hanging out. There’s a joy in discovering their shared love of gaming despite the differences in their circumstances, and it feels like a genuine turning point for the perspective of both Henk and the audiences. It’s a simple thing, really, but it’s one of many small, heartfelt character moments that make this film more than just fun.
About the only gripe I have is that Tetris a bit too…clean. If that makes sense. It wraps things up in a tidy way and clearly rounds the edges on some of the character beats. Yes, it keeps to the facts, but there’s no way all the differing plot threads manage to tie up at the exact same time, if you know what I mean.
Even so, it’s hard to see that as a major complaint. Sure, it eschews some of the grittier subplots it could have explored, but it keeps the focus so tightly on the intrigue behind it all, that you don’t really think about it while you’re watching. Coming in just under two hours, Tetris finds an exciting angle to tell the story from and keeps the blinders on to get you through it. Sure, while there are some aspects I would have loved seeing explored a tad more, I can’t find any fault in the fun adventure it took me through.