Remember back when the first Lego movie was first announced? Boy did everyone have a laugh about that. How could a film about a bunch of building blocks possibly be worth making? Then it arrived, shocking the naysayers and delighting the Lego faithful with an incredibly clever, often hilarious, adventure with one of the catchiest original songs of the year. In other words, everything was awesome.
Fast forward nine years to the announcement of a Tetris film and you guessed it, people were puzzled by how a shape dropping puzzle video game could be turned into a feature film. This time around I was one of those questioning just what this film would entail. Blocks fall from the sky at a quickening pace as a somewhat maddening song repeats over and over until you eventually fail. The perfect subject for a film this does not make, or so I thought.
That all changed after learning there was an international battle over the publishing rights for the game. Anyone expecting an animated film featuring falling blocks will be disappointed. Those expecting a Cold War-era comedy that has all the feels of an international spy thriller are in for some fun. The Tetris story told here carries the infamous “based on a true story” tag, meaning some of the details are true, others are the work of Hollywood.
Set in 1988, game designer Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) is out promoting his latest game at CES when he comes across a new game from a russian game designer, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), of course that game is Tetris. Control of the game is in the hands of russian group known as ELORG who are reluctant to Unfortunately, he soon learns the rights for the game are owned by business mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) his smarmy son, CEO of Mirrorsoft, Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle) and Robert Stein (Toby Jones) of Andromeda Software. Knowing just how much of a money maker the game can be, Rogers does not stop his pursuit of the game there, leading him all the way into the offices of Nintendo.
Soon Rogers is traveling across the globe to make the deals necessary to tap into what the puzzler game offers him and his wife (Ayane Nagabuchi) financially, putting their life savings and home on the line. Little does Rogers know how elevated the threats against him are with Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov) the head of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs tracking his every move. Bribes, threats, double crossing, intimidation, and high-risk bluffs are all in the mix as these videogame business dealings take on all the tension of an international espionage thriller.
That is just the beginning of the complex dealings that populate the surprisingly fast-paced film. The business aspects do become convoluted at times, even making me a little blurry about where the chips lie in this high stakes poker match. I was often left wondering if we needed to see every card played. Perhaps less double crosses would make them land with more weight. While at its core this is a film about cut-throat business deals, that is not where its strength lies. As long as you know that you are rooting for Rogers and this new counterpart on the other end of the globe, Pajitnov, you should have fun as the breakneck cloak-and-dagger elements pile up.
Rogers and Pajitnov’s budding relationship make for some of the film’s smaller moments. They remind us that behind the intense global deals are two men with a lot in common even though they are worlds apart politically and geographically. While Rogers seems always at the brink of danger and could financially lose everything after going all-in on the deal, Pajitnov is pressured by threats against his family straight from mother Russia via Trifonov. Egerton’s everyman feel is easy to get behind especially since he is fallible to questionable decisions and probably too much drive.
Director Jon S. Baird keeps the tone tense while also injecting some over-the-top qualities which especially in the last act remind that this is a fictionalized version of history. The good guys and bad guys may as well be wearing white and black hats. No one more Russian baddie, Trifonov, who is always dressed head to toe in black, a piercing stare and a sneer. He’s communist villain I was raised to root against – and blast to watch. When writer Noah Pink is given the room to explore these more comedic qualities the balance I enjoyed best came to life.
There is also no shortage of heart-racing action; high speed car chases, urgent secretive faxes, on foot pursuits through airports right up to the closing plane doors, inject plenty of 80s cold war vibes. Set against the backdrop of a crumbling Soviet Union, the stakes grow so large it ultimately feels like the fate of Rogers, communism, and the world all depend on these video game deals. There’s even a cameo by Mikhail Gorbachev and some KGB thrown into the mix.
From frame one Baird keeps his storytelling stylized with plenty of nostalgic 8-bit video game aesthetics. The use of gaming graphics and being told in terms of ‘levels’ instead of acts are nice touches. Those who played the game will enjoy the clever incorporation of the textures, graphics, and sounds lifted directly from the game. Even better is British composer Lorne Balfe’s score is composed of variations on the original game theme throughout the film.
Overall the film is much more ambitious than expected. It is as exciting as it is goofy and sometimes cannot decide which one it is as it teeters between the two extremes. Battling distribution rights, paranoid thrills, dangerous spy games, plus video game history and development are all worked into the near 2-hour runtime. It is part history lesson, part comedy, part political thriller. Anyone who has spent endless hours rotating those dropping blocks should appreciate the gaming aspects while how the rest stack up may have varying results.
‘Tetris’ is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.
‘Tetris’ throws a lot at the viewer requiring more focus than expected to figure out where all the pieces fit.