Tetris review: Engaging true story with fun stylistic quirks
The film documents the legal wrangle to obtain international distribution rights to the game in the late '80s.
When news first broke that development was under way on a Tetris movie, the initial reaction of many film fans was one of bewilderment: just how could the iconic falling brick game possibly be constructed into a narrative worthy of a feature-length production?
Of course, it soon became clear that rather than an adaptation of the game itself, the film would be telling the fascinating true story of its origins – specifically the legal wrangle to obtain the international distribution rights in the late '80s. The result is a solidly tense thriller set against the backdrop of the Cold War, boosted by some fun stylistic quirks and a charismatic lead performance from Taron Egerton.
Egerton stars as Henk Rogers, a swaggering Dutch businessman and video game designer living in Japan, who has had little luck developing a game of his own and is now scouring the market for a way to make a quick buck. While attending a convention, he comes across a stall advertising the titular game and is instantly convinced of its genius – making it his ambition to secure the rights in Japan after first persuading Nintendo of its limitless potential. And so, having staked everything he owns on his success, he travels to the USSR deadset on thrashing out a deal.
The film's early sections have a lot of work to do in terms of explaining the complex legal setup – which involves a number of parties already locked in a contractual dispute – and the convoluted nature of this situation means these opening stages feel a little laboured. This is despite the best efforts of director Jon S Baird to inject some spark into proceedings through some interesting choices, such as the use of 8-bit animation.
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But things settle into a nice groove after Henk arrives in the USSR, where he soon finds himself up against a rogue's gallery of antagonists – each painted in various hues of cartoon villainy. This includes his rivals battling it out to strike a deal for the rights to the game – Toby Jones chews the scenery as dodgy executive Robert Stein and Roger Allam and Anthony Boyle star as smarmy father and son double act Robert and Kevin Maxwell – while an especially formidable foe comes in the shape of malevolent KGB agent Valentin Trifonov, played with relish by Igor Grabuzov.
Henk also meets the game's inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov) whose initial skepticism soon makes way for a certain fondness as he begins to recognise his new acquaintance is more likeminded than the shady businessmen he has dealt with until now. The pair make for a charming duo and some of the best scenes are devoted to their burgeoning alliance, as Henk promises to secure his new friend a deal that will finally see him given a fair reward for having created the game. Egerton in particular is in fine form, giving the character an energetic confidence that never slips into arrogance, and even selling the rather undercooked family drama aspect of the plot.
The film's second and third acts are laced with a nice dose of tension, and there are some particularly good scenes that see the Russians play the potential buyers off against each other. But arguably the best moments stem from Baird's ingenious stylistic choices – with the director choosing to lean into video game aesthetics in key moments, including a well-executed car chase that switches between live action and the aforementioned 8-bit animation.
The electronic score by Lorne Balfe also makes excellent use of the iconic Tetris theme music, while there is a soundtrack that includes a number of enjoyable if fairly obvious era-appropriate needle drops. It all adds up to something that might not quite live up to the film's billing as a Cold War–era thriller "on steroids", but nonetheless manages to tell an intriguing story in an engaging and entertaining manner.