Directed by: Jon S. Baird
Distributed by: Apple TV+
Written by Anna Harrison
Tetris, as a game, seems unremarkable in the cluttered landscape of 2023; it may be something you do while in line, bored at work, or on the toilet, but you can only make so many rows align before something else catches your attention, yet despite that, the simplicity of Tetris has endured—though this was no sure thing, as Jon S. Baird shows us in Apple TV+’s snappy, crowd-pleasing “Tetris.”
It helps, of course, to cast Taron Egerton as our hero, Henk Rogers, who was one of several key players in the battle for the rights to Tetris (though Egerton’s assertion that he has some Indonesian blood in him certainly raised my eyebrows). Egerton’s charisma instantly aligns us to Rogers, who spies Tetris at a convention and immediately sets out to acquire Tetris rights for his company, Bullet-Proof Software, portrayed here as a scrappy underdog in the burgeoning world of video games.
It’s also easier to root for Rogers and Bullet-Proof Software when you see who they’re up against; namely, the Maxwell family (of the Ghislaine type) and Robert Stein (Toby Jones), a grubby German with a penchant for swindling people and promising them rights they don’t actually have. But this is more than just business calls and board meetings—Rogers’ determination to figure out exactly what the hell is going on with these rights and why he can’t have them leads him all the way to Soviet Russia, where much of the story takes place.
The Soviet Union’s complete control over Russia is waning, but Rogers’ presence—followed by Stein and Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle)—doesn’t go unnoticed, especially by corrupt KGB officer Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov). What should have been a slightly convoluted distribution deal becomes instead a Cold War thriller, full of spies, beatings, and blackmail, painting Rogers the brave capitalist fighting back against those wretched commies, while showing it to those stuck-up Brits, too. Huzzah! (The director is Scottish, just to clarify.)
Even if the terms of the deal get harder and harder to follow, the gently pro-capitalist slant of “Tetris,” inviting you to feel sympathy for apathetic companies by introducing you to the personal lives of the people who work there (see also “Air”), is simple, and never so boot-licking that it becomes too terribly obnoxious. Egerton’s charm takes the movie a long way, as does his chemistry with Nikita Efremov as Tetris’s harried inventor, Alexey Pajitnov, and while Rogers’s wife, Akemi (Ayane), and kids are only stock characters designed to elicit sympathy and humanity, they do so decently, even if the writing for them proves that there is nothing new under the sun.
Where “Tetris” stands out, though, are small flourishes from Baird that add up to make the movie far more memorable than a standard retelling of this far-fetched story. Baird frequently utilizes eight-bit graphics and songs to introduce new players and new locations, and this lends “Tetris” a sense of fun that similar movies often lack. Things culminate in a climactic car chase partially in eight-bit graphics and set to the Russian version of “Holding Out For a Hero,” and it makes a strong case for being the second-best use of that song in a movie (“Shrek 2,” of course, taking that particular cake with ease); even amidst tense negotiations with the Russians, and while always taking the characters’ personal stakes seriously, “Tetris” isn’t afraid to wink at the audience. This might not be enough to make you forget all the movies flaws—namely, biting off a bit more than it can chew re: Cold War era politics—but it certainly helps things go down more smoothly, and odds are by the time the credits roll and we get to see pictures of the real Rogers and Pajitnov, you’ll be hard-pressed not to have a smile on your face.
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