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Tetris
Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

Film

Tetris Gives the Game’s Complex Backstory the Hollywood Treatment

Jon S. Baird’s glossy account of the origins of Russia’s most popular video game export is a digestible, but safe thriller.

Tetris Review

The story behind one of the biggest (and greatest) video games of all time is probably one most aren’t familiar with. There’s a darkness surrounding Tetris that never feels thoroughly approached in Jon S. Baird’s fascinating but far-too-polished account of the rights battle surrounding Russia’s greatest video game export. As all the pieces of this intricate battle for the rights of Tetris start falling into place, Baird’s latest film chooses absurdity over realism in a glossy, mostly accurate depiction of the story behind one of the most addicting video games ever made.

Video games don’t get made in a vacuum, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears go into making some of the most popular entertainment. Of course, it’s the same with any media, but Tetris is one of the few times that the behind-the-scenes gets the spotlight for video games. Where the expectation would be that the creator of the video game is the protagonist, Tetris decides to focus on Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) – the lynchpin to the video game Tetris becoming one of the key pillars to Nintendo’s launch of the Game Boy. His discovery of the game and pursuit of the rights to release the game on handheld gaming consoles is where Baird’s film picks up.

A Dutch businessman running a small company in Japan alongside his wife, Rogers is not portrayed as the savviest of businessmen. It’s not until he lays eyes on Tetris being played at a booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that his eyes widen, and his belief in the game’s rights being a meal ticket consumes every last bit of rational thinking. When he discovers that the rightsholder is not exactly ironed out, he heads to Russia and attempts to strike a deal with whoever holds the rights to the game.

Tetris
Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

In comes the most interesting wrinkle that Noah Pink’s screenplay writes into a web of confusion, turning Tetris into a Cold War thriller befitting its setting: who holds the rights to the video game? What sounds like a boring question not capable of justifying a 118-minute runtime is made compelling by the reality of the situation. Set in the mid-1980s, as the Soviet Union seems on the road to collapse, Rogers is not the only one interested in the rights to Tetris. Behind him are Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle), who run Mirrorsoft, the company that believed they already held the rights. The middleman between the Soviet Union and Mirrorsoft is Robert Stein (Toby Jones), whose possession of the rights seems certain, but the financial stability that should bring has been in flux, making him a very unsatisfied partner with Mirrorsoft.

There’s one name not mentioned here: the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). As the movie clearly spells out, Pajitnov is barely a player in the story of the rights of Tetris. He is merely an employee of ELORG – a computer company run by the Ministry of Foreign Trade of the USSR. Baird’s polished presentation of the story of Tetris undercuts the severity of the story itself, often playing with stereotypes and tropes in order to make an ultimately complex legal dispute more exciting and compelling to audiences. As a result, every bit of the setting feels manipulated, and every action is played out more like a comedy of errors.

A lot of that also has to do with how the film portrays Rogers. While there are these moments when the grim circumstances seep into Rogers’ real life in Russia and his home in Japan, Egerton’s performance is trying to balance a level of nonchalance with a blindness to the world around him. Rogers is in over his head, but he can’t grasp that he might be driving a nail into his own coffin – one of many nails by the time he’s in the USSR. Egerton walks that line well, and when the film lets him be slightly vulnerable, it’s all the better for it. 

Tetris
Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

Still, most of the time, Tetris feels like a by-the-numbers thriller that can’t tell whether it wants to be an Armando Iannucci knock-off or a John le Carré adaptation. The screenplay seems intent on being the latter, but how it’s all delivered indicates a more comical sensibility.

Many elements undercut the impact of Tetris, from its too-little-too-late incorporation of Pajitnov to the weird pixel overlays and transitions that look like moments cut from the TV show Code Monkeys or the abominable Pixels. However, at least those titles understand the tone they want to explore and commit. Tetris is always avoiding the tone that its setting inherently brings, instead only opting to include the minutiae of the situation if it can be made glitzy and palatable.

Tetris gets more right than it seems based on how incredulous it can become, but the reality is given the Hollywood treatment and made accessible. For all the screenplay’s attempts to be a Cold War thriller, Baird sacrifices the severity of being in an unknown country at a volatile time while under serious duress. The home life is an afterthought meant to nuance the main character but treat the rest of the family like pawns used to manipulate the audience. The same can be said about Pajitnov’s inclusion, which is barely referenced until it can motivate Rogers.

Perhaps what Tetris is reminiscent of most is the many ports and releases of the titular game that offer little more than a new coat of paint on a timeless classic. It’s still fun to play, but the arbitrary changes to the aesthetic just to make it marketable quickly cheapen the experience. Baird’s film is less of a Tetris Effect and more of a mobile port sent out into a sea of endless content.

Written By

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Victoria, British Columbia. Given a pint, he will talk for days about action films, video games, and the works of John Carpenter.

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