If I could look at some sort of historical record of how many hours I’ve played Tetris—all the way back to its iteration on the Nintendo GameBoy through its many imitators—I would probably faint at the lost productivity. There’s something so addictive about Tetris. It gets under your skin; you just want to play one more round, again and again. Telling the story of how this time-killer became an international phenomenon could have made for an interesting film, but “Tetris,” which premiered yesterday at SXSW, tries to turn this tale of patents and legal rights into something closer to “The Social Network” or even an ‘80s spy movie, and, well, the cinematic blocks just don’t fall into place.
Taron Egerton stars as Henk Rogers, the founder of a company called Bullet-Proof Software, and a man who basically stumbled into the legacy of Tetris at a gaming convention in his new home country of Japan. He instantly realizes the potential of a game that had yet to make its way around the Iron Curtain to any part of the world other than Tokyo. And he wants a piece of it. Rogers narrates “Tetris,” a complicated film about a simple game. It’s just a rolling array of dropping blocks, but the details about market shares, legal rights, and Cold War politics drive this plot, not the game itself. Rogers is a low-level player in the gaming world, and getting the rights to something as Tetris will require navigating around power figures in both business and politics.
A hyperactive opening act that uses 8-bit graphics and Egerton’s narration a bit too chaotically, “Tetris” settles in when Rogers gets to Russia (but gets a little less entertaining). By this point, he’s bet his family’s financial future on this prospect, and the increasingly reliable Egerton smartly sells Henk’s inability to take no for an answer, even when the KGB is involved. As he’s trying to get the rights to sell Tetris to Nintendo so they can bundle it with their new handheld, he runs across the man who actually invented the game, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), and he makes rewarding the game’s creator part of his mission. When Rogers suggests he come over to discuss things with Alexey shortly after meeting him, he seems startled to hear that that’s not allowed in Russia. No foreign guests. It’s that kind of structure that Rogers is trying to navigate. He doesn’t know the language. He doesn’t know the laws. He doesn’t care because nothing is going to stop him.
It’s not just the battle of Communism vs. Capitalism that stands in Henk Rogers’ way. In the ‘80s, a true business villain was on the scene in the form of Robert Maxwell, played here by Roger Allam. Maxwell owned the Mirror Group, which published the Daily Mirror, among others, and was a fascinating, divisive figure in world business and politics. (He also had a daughter named Ghislaine. Yes, that one.) His son Kevin (Anthony Boyle) tries to grab some attention from daddy and the world by profiting from Tetris, which allows the Maxwells to become the “big business” figures that stand in their way, with Toby Jones’ negotiator Robert Stein in the middle. In Russia, Rogers runs afoul of Russian authorities at every turn, including an imposing figure at Alexei’s company named Nikolai (Oleg Shtefanko) and a classic Russian tough guy named Valentin (Igor Grabuzov), who literally threatens to throw a child out a window at one point, pointing out that everything falls at the same rate. (Like Tetris! Get it?!?)
If it sounds like a lot, it is, and yet it’s also not enough. All of this intrigue and negotiation gets “Tetris” to a remarkably repetitive and monotonous place that’s not helped by director Jon S. Baird’s glib tone, one that looks back on the ‘80s with a sort of goofy bemusement that feels disingenuous. The movie bounces back and forth between conference rooms and scary Russian alleys, but it never finds the right depth of character or deviation in either, choosing to enliven the dry material with an odd amount of condescension instead of actual tension. “Can you believe these crazy Russians?” is an odd tone to strike, especially with the current state of the world in 2023.
One of the script’s many problems is that the non-Rogers characters mostly feel like archetypes. There’s the “Good Artistic Russian,” the “Evil Muscle Russian,” the “Whiny Kid Businessman,” and his evil dad. Rogers’ wife and family are there for emotional pressure. Jones and Allam are wasted. To be fair, Shtefanko actually beats the clichés most interestingly, finding depth in a Russian cog in the machine who realizes he may be looking at something his country doesn’t want to let the Americans take from him.
The saddest thing about “Tetris” is that it’s easy to see why someone wanted to tell this story. The little guy never wins in Russia, and he usually goes to jail for even thinking he could play, but American business is built on narratives of Davids beating business Goliaths. Merging the two for a story in which an ambitious American had to use the tools of Capitalism to topple Communism sounds like an easy sell, and there’s probably a great documentary to be made on this subject. But breaking it out into a drama or thriller requires a different set of rules, and, despite Egerton’s best efforts, the team behind “Tetris” never figured out how to tell this story. It’s so repetitive that it will make you want to pick up your phone while it’s playing on Apple TV. You should play Tetris.
This review was filed from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. “Tetris” premieres on Apple TV+ on March 31st.