Tetris Review: Taron Egerton Battles the Soviet Union for Video Game Rights

SXSW: Not all the pieces fit together in this straightforward AppleTV+ dramedy that’s more “Social Network” than “Super Mario Bros.”

No, no, it’s not a movie as the titular video game, it’s a movie from the titular video game. Tetris? The 80s Tetris game? That get a whole movie about its creation? Wouldn’t blocks falling from above be more dramatic? Well, actually… creating, discovering and licensing Tetris is kind of wild (first tip: it was created by a Soviet software engineer long before the collapse of the Soviet Union). But, spoiler alert: He’s not wild enough to make an often oddly simple historical dramedy devoted to his legend.

But damn if director Jon S. Baird and star Taron Egerton don’t do their best to fit these disparate pieces together (sorry) into a cohesive story. If nothing else, you’ll walk away from “Tetris” knowing a lot more about the game and the many (dare we say it, too many) people who fought each other for the chance to bring in the crowds. (Fans of convoluted stories about the ins and outs of intellectual property licensing, hello! This thing is totally for you, plus tricky 8-bit animated graphics.)

That’s not to say that “Tetris” isn’t fun. Baird employs 8-bit animation from the film’s opening (we introduce our key characters as “players”) to a slew of map-traveling moments that take us from Seattle to Tokyo to Moscow and back (and back again). But there’s a lot of meat on that bone, certainly a lot more than most people would expect from a movie, again, a dicey video game. Noah Pink’s script struggles to distill it all while keeping the entire effort moving.

Pink wisely turns his attention to Dutch video game designer and publisher Henk Rogers (he still works today), who stumbles upon Tetris at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and is immediately smitten. For Henk (Taron Egerton), it’s the “perfect game,” and when he gets the video game and arcade rights (only in Japan, one of the many complicated contract disputes “Tetris” will be embroiled in), he sees nothing. but a golden future for him and his beloved game. Oh, Hank!

Henk offers the actor a charming combination bowl that suits his charms: part biopic, part spy thriller, and it all hinges on his cowboy-style charm. Henk is a nice guy, kind of a hustler, a big dreamer, and when he buys the rights to Tetris, he hopes it will help his family (including his wife and partner Akemi, played by Japanese star Ayane). ). Too bad for those Other guys who also own the rights to Tetris.


History Time: Tetris was created by Soviet government employee Alexei Pajitnov (played in the film by Russian star Nikita Efremov, who looks disconcertingly like “Point Break” remake star Luke Bracey). It was a big hit with his compatriots – this thing was shared floppy disks — that when Andromeda Software head Robert Stein (Toby Jones, who does a lot with a little) sniffed around, Russia let him license it. And then He licensed it to eventually disgraced media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his struggling son Kevin (Anthony Boyle). And then Henk thought He had the driver’s license.

It doesn’t really matter. All of these tricks and skips will be found in Tetris, especially in an extremely long middle section that mostly takes place in the most oppressive Soviet-era conference rooms you’ve ever seen. Everything you need to know: Desperate to lock up the rights to Tetris (especially handhelds once he finds out about Nintendo’s plans for the game-changing Game Boy), Henk heads to Russia to negotiate with the authorities. directly.

It’s going about as well as could reasonably be expected. The KGB gets involved. There are endless scenes of English being translated into Russian and back. Every phone is tapped. Gorbachev appears! Somewhere there is a striking portrait that describes the film as a combination of “Super Mario Bros.” and “Argo” – “Super M-Argo Bros.”? – at the climax, our heroes run through an airport to escape Moscow on an international flight that takes a little too long to take off. It’s a crucial moment that feels an awful lot like a Ben Affleck thriller, probably by design.

It’s both too much and too little (let’s not get into the subplot about Henk missing his daughter Maya’s school performance, that trope is so overwrought it almost doubles down on itself), but it’s an unusual history that’s fun. fits and starts. No, not all the parts fit together, and of course it doesn’t speed up as the game ramps up (it might have done well to emulate that from the game itself), but it has players to root for and a story that keeps you leveling up . It doesn’t stick in your brain like the game (who doesn’t still see those little blocks that keep floating down?), but what else could it be?

Grade: C+

Tetris premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It starts streaming on Friday, March 31 on AppleTV+.

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