A Tetris movie sounds like a punchline about how Hollywood has truly run out of ideas. After a sea of sequels, remakes, and movie adaptations based on every kind of toy on the market, a film based on a video game in which you arrange blocks seems like it should be a bridge too far. It should be stupid. And frankly, thisTetris gets a tad stupid, albeit in a brilliant way.
Combining the stranger-than-fiction story of its making with an ardent embrace of the game’s aesthetic and nostalgia for the era more broadly, Tetris is a surprisingly smart, silly, and satisfying adventure.
I entered a cynic and came out grinning like a fool.
Tetris is the true story of Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov.
Credit: Apple TV+
Scripted by Noah Pink, Tetris introduces us to Dutch video game designer Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) in 1988, as he’s witnessing a demo of Tetris at a convention in Las Vegas; it dawns on him that he’s watching nothing less than the future of gaming. As the founder of Bullet-Proof Software, Henk is eager to make a deal for Tetris‘s international rights, and he tries to broker with a British firm as well as Nintendo. But all his hard work — and life’s savings — are put at risk when it turns out the Russian government owns the game and has no intention of playing fair.
Caught in the Cold War crosshairs of this battle of business, politics, and shady dealings is Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), a Soviet computer engineer with a love of games. What began as a hobby became a viral sensation — in the era of floppy disks, no less! With the possibility that Tetris could bring major money into the Soviet Union, it’s not Pajitnov who makes the call on who’ll distribute his puzzle game. It’s up to a government that is falling apart at the seams and increasingly corrupt.
Amid political intrigue, none-too-subtle threats from the KGB, and harassment from bullish British billionaires, Henk and Alexey form an unlikely friendship that will be tested as Tetris’s future is determined.
Taron Egerton is precisely the star Tetris demands.
Credit: Apple TV+
As much of the movie consists of Henk bouncing from one business meeting to another contract negotiation, Tetris director Jon S. Baird faced a major obstacle in keeping this seemingly banal string of events entertaining. In combatting the threatening tedium of business, business, business, his secret weapon is the Welsh actor who’s brought unflinching verve to the working-class superspy of Kingsman, the plucky underdog of Eddie the Eagle, and the blinding charisma of Elton John in Rocketman.(Opens in a new tab)
Right out the gate, Tetris welcomes us in with the guileless smile and can-do attitude that exudes from under Egerton’s bushy, deeply ’80s mustache. Playing a man born in Denmark but raised in New York, he affects an American accent with a romping enthusiasm that gently reflects the capitalist expectation that everything is for sale and the never-say-die optimism that’s fueled American business of this era. This is where the open enthusiasm of Egerton’s persona is key. While there’s an air of The Founder’s opportunistic businessman (Opens in a new tab)about him, Henk’s passion for Tetris isn’t only tied to his conviction it’ll be a hit but also his genuine love of the game itself. Greed isn’t good to Henk; games are good.
His enthusiasm is contagious, ushering the audience back into the experience of discovering the iconic puzzle game and its mesmerizing, addictive wonders for the first time. This effusiveness binds us to Henk as he bounds around the globe, from his family’s crowded Tokyo apartment to Nintendo’s secret R&D offices in Seattle, to self-important multimedia offices in London and even to the off-limits government buildings in Moscow. As the tension ratchets up, turning the stakes to life or death, Egerton’s charm goes from a lure to a floatation device, assuring us he’ll see us through with the confident glimmer in his eye.
Tetris comes alive with elements from the game.
Credit: Apple TV+
The other major tool to keeping Tetris moving and fun — even as it stumbles into the muck of business and corruption — is how Baird works in elements from the game. From the start, 8-bit animation is used to spice up the film’s aesthetic. Chapter titles introduce “players,” complete with 8-bit avatars of Henk, Alexey, and their friends and foes. Standard establishing shots of locations, like a convention center or Hank’s home, are substituted with 8-bit illustrations as a new “chapter” title card is introduced. Elsewhere, the subtitles use a font that harkens back to the sharp lines of ’80s video games, while the music blaring in an underground club embraces the outrageousness of Western culture of the time and its sheer gusto. When Henk rocks out to Europe’s “The Final Countdown,”(Opens in a new tab) I dare you not to bop along.
Elsewhere in the soundscape, sound effects pulled from old-school games replace real-life sounds, like pinging footsteps, which bring an added zing to simple actions. The animation of falling blocks appears as a dreamy overlay as Henk waxes poetic about the magic of the Tetris game. All of this plays in sharp contrast to the starkly gray, cold, and concrete world of Moscow, where things are bleak and utterly lacking the dazzle of Tetris‘s colorful graphics and zinging score.
This weird juxtaposition reaches its zenith during a climactic car chase scene that’s scored by the Tetris game music. It’s ludicrous! It’s stupid! It’s glorious! The car itself jumps out of its metal reality and transforms into an 8-bit automobile. Rather than undercutting the stakes of this escape attempt, Baird’s playful flourish gives the audience a visual reminder of what Henk and Alexey are racing toward. It’s not just a game but the dream of sharing their creative vision with the world, breaking down barriers of what is and what could be, and the crushing tedium of our day-to-day, eight bits at a time!
Style and star power can’t smooth out all of Tetris‘s rough edges, though. Despite Baird’s best efforts, the second act gets a bit bogged down in scenes away from our two heroes. These sequences draw the distinction between the movie’s heroic dreamers and their greedy, cold-hearted business antagonists. These villain are a drag because they are such staunch stereotypes of greed, entitlement, and cynicism. While these figures are another very ’80s element, snarling at the decade’s vices, a little goes a long way with such characters. Yet Baird has an even longer way to go with them, which means repeating the same punchlines and posturing again and again.
Still, Tetris is way better a movie than I dared hope. I loved the game growing up, as was expected of the Game Boy Generation. Admittedly, the trailer teased a self-aware sense of wit, playing this Cold War thriller like a zany comedy. Still, I had my doubts going in, because on its face a movie based on Tetris seems absurd. Despite my reservations, I can’t deny this biopic is downright delightful.
At times, Baird struggles with balancing the tone of Henk’s whimsical enthusiasm with the furrow-browed intensity of the Soviet spy schtick. Overall, Tetris is a thrilling romp full of humor, heart, and a kinetic message of hope.
Tetris was reviewed out of its World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival(Opens in a new tab). The film will debut on Apple TV+ on March 31.