Directed by Jon S. Baird.
Starring Taron Egerton, Nikita Efremov, Sofia Lebedeva, Anthony Boyle, Ben Miles, Ken Yamamura, Igor Grabuzov, Oleg Shtefanko, Ayane Nagabuchi, Rick Yune, Roger Allam, Toby Jones, Ieva Andrejevaitė, Matthew Marsh, Togo Igawa, Miles Barrow, Aaron Vodovoz, Igor Grabuzov, Oleg Stefan, and Polina Sulim.
The story of how one of the world’s most popular video games found its way to players around the globe. Businessman Henk Rogers and Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov join forces in the USSR, risking it all to bring Tetris to the masses.
It takes a special brand of daredevil and conviction to head into Cold War-era Russia to barter for the rights to a video game. It’s also a reminder that it was always huge for as big as the industry is now, even from its infancy as a medium. And while the legal battles on display throughout Jon S. Baird’s Tetris are unquestionably compelling (from the inner workings of the gaming industry to Russian politics), it is Taron Egerton’s game developer businessman Henk Rogers and his wide-eyed, enthusiastic nutso ambition seeing dollar signs and a dream to secure handheld rights for the game exclusively with Nintendo’s upcoming handheld Game Boy device release (which gets its secretive reveal in a scene bursting with sincere nerdy affection), forever changing his life and the industry’s landscape.
Developed by Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), there were no plans to sell Tetris off to the West. Even if Alexey wanted to, communism wouldn’t let him. Nevertheless, Henk brings in the head of Andromeda Software, Robert Stein, someone experienced with making videogame-related deals in Russia, but a bit shady, which is a given since Toby Jones plays him. A British company run by Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his son Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle) also enters the legal war, throwing their weight around with toxic desperation. Suddenly, the Russian government gets wind of what’s going on, introducing a slew of other characters that have their beliefs on what should be done and how they could use the situation to their advantage regarding the collapse of the Soviet Union.
There are many moving parts to Tetris, and for the most part, they are properly aligned. It’s also easy to get lost in all the backstabbing and betrayals, as there is constant deception and slick tricks over who owns the rights to what (there are the rights to the game itself, console rights, and handheld rights), but there’s always a sense of what’s going on and why everything is happening and what the motives are. Unsurprisingly, many of these characters are shady and up to no good, which only elevates Henk’s character arc. As another character puts it, he’s honest but dumb. We want him to succeed throughout this reckless stupidity that has them endangering himself through the usual clichés like disconnecting himself from his family and missing his daughter’s dance performance.
Admittedly, Tetris strains a bit too hard to pop whatever portion of gamers want to come out and watch what is already being advertised as The Social Network for the industry, with clunky lines name-dropping other Nintendo brands. However, other creative choices, such as pixelated transitions and stylistic flourishes during a car chase, come across more natural. There’s also a believable growing friendship between two men of two completely different types of societies, even when Alexey is unsure how much he can trust Henk. Then you have juicy reveals divulging the real financial state of other bidding companies and the specifics of how certain characters are screwed over, making for something compulsively entertaining.
Tetris is about as deep as a Wikipedia entry regarding character, but the touching friendship at the center of the film is moving, and there is an energetic, upbeat flare to the storytelling that works in juxtaposition to the bleak monochrome Cold War aesthetic. As a lifelong gamer, I certainly didn’t know the fight for distribution rights was entangled in this dangerous legal war. The fact that a video game could cause this much chaos and importance to Russia is fascinating. It makes one wonder what other video game-related stories can be told and serves as a reminder that there are typically far more intriguing stories to tell than simply how something was made.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com