- Director: Jon S. Baird
- Writers: Noah Pink
- Starring: Taron Edgerton, Nikita Efremov, Sofia Lebedeva, Anthony Boyle, Toby Jones
“A movie about Tetris” feels a bit like an indication of the empty-headed nature of the Hollywood ecosystem. What could possibly be compelling about a bunch of colorful falling blocks, a game defined by how much of a waste of time it was? Lest we forget, six Transformers movies and The Emoji Movie exist.
Thankfully Tetris, directed by Jon S. Baird with a script from Noah Pink, is less about the game itself and more about the unbelievable-but-true story behind how it became a global phenomenon. The film comes hot out of the gate in the opening minutes, introducing us to Henk Rogers (Taron Edgerton), a game developer and salesman who quickly gets sucked into the new game at a Las Vegas conference.
He comes to learn that Tetris was created in the heart of Soviet Russia by a mild-mannered programmer named Alexey (Nikita Efremov), and he sets off, trying to secure the worldwide rights to the game on behalf of Nintendo. But standing in his way are the father-son duo of Robert and Kevin Maxwell (Roger Allam and Anthony Boyle, respectively), the heads of Mirrorsoft. There’s also Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who works for the Maxwells and as the middleman between them and the USSR. Of course, looming over everything is the Iron Curtain, who wants to discourage Western influence from profiting off of Soviet products. This is personified by Sasha (Sofia Lebedeva), an undercover KGB agent posing as Henk’s translator, Nikolai (Oleg Shtefanko), the head of the Russian computer company, and USSR officer Valentin (Igor Grabuzov), and all their shifting internal politics.
Much like Tetris the game, the layers in Tetris the movie continue to build and build until it almost becomes unsustainable. This is the film’s major failing, although anyone who finds the business machinations more fascinating than the character development in Succession will likely have a field day. The bargaining of the various rights to the game – handheld, arcade, computer – is enough to make your head spin at times, or at least be made into a drinking game. This real-life context is interesting enough, but it comes at the sacrifice of building character, especially Henk’s, who isn’t much more than a blank slate of determination.
Edgerton handles the role well enough, portraying a man who simply won’t take no for an answer regardless of his own personal and financial safety, but there isn’t much to get invested in beyond his own success. Efremov works nicely as a man who’s torn between keeping his family safe and seeing the fruits of his labor prosper. And Anthony Boyle is quite effective as a sniveling, cocky villain, coasting on his father’s money and connections but feeling like he’s owed the same respect.
One of Baird’s most curious directorial choices is to infuse 8-bit visuals at nearly every turn; from infographics to establishing and transitory shots, they occur early and often. Yes, they help to establish a unique visual style in the film, but they reach a saturation point, which Baird hits over and over. And in case you forgot the time and place of the film, be prepared for a handful of 80s pop songs translated into Russian; what was once a fun recent film trend, I fear has already worn out its welcome.
At the very least, Tetris provides for a nice, quickly paced escapist piece of nonfiction. It’s far from the worst of Apple’s original films – in fact, it’s not even the worst Apple film based on a true story where the mustachioed protagonist takes an ill-advised venture into hostile territory (that would be The Greatest Beer Run Ever). Seeing the events of Tetris unfold is interesting enough, but the film could have taken a cue from the simplicity of the game it’s based on.
Tetris will be available to stream on AppleTV+ on March 31.