The story of how Tetris made its way from Russia to the West and became a worldwide phenomenon just as the Soviet Union was collapsing is a fascinating tale of capitalistic greed, technological innovation, and political revolution — things you’d think might lead to an interesting film adaptation.
All of those narrative building blocks are present and accounted for in Tetris, Apple TV Plus’ new feature from director Jon S. Baird, which debuted at this year’s SXSW. But rather than feeling like a piece of handheld history brought to life, this uneven Tetris origin story plays almost as if it were tailor-made for middle-age film festival goers who somehow lived through the end of the 20th century without ever having played the eponymous video game.
Though Apple’s Tetris is partially a chronicle of how the game itself was first created, its real focus is on the life of Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), the Dutch-born entrepreneur who, in the late ’80s, became embroiled in a complex battle for the legal rights to license the title to companies like Nintendo and Atari. As both the founder of his own games publishing company and the developer of one of the first RPGs to hit it big in Japan, Henk can immediately sense that he’s in the presence of something great when he stumbles upon a very early version of Tetris being demoed at CES as the movie opens.
Obviously, video games existed back in the mid-’80s when Russian software engineer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) first began developing Tetris as a side project while working for the Dorodnitsyn Computing Centre. But there was nothing quite like Tetris on the market at the time — especially not in the communist Soviet Union — and the entire process of getting new titles into stores was a wildly different game of either creating or owning the legal rights to viable software and then being in the right position to actually sell copies at scale.
Even in the best-case scenario, one would be hard-pressed to turn a man’s quest to secure video game distribution rights into a riveting narrative defined by compelling characters and a distinct voice. But that’s precisely what Tetris tries and fails spectacularly to do in its breathless first third, which is mostly Henk regaling banker Larry (Rick Yune) with an account of Tetris’ Soviet origins that sounds a lot like a Wikipedia entry.
It’s during one of Henk’s fateful money meetings with Larry that Tetris starts getting a little experimental with a cascade of imaginary tetrominoes that rain down behind the consummate salesman — the movie’s way of showing you how obsessed with the game he was from the jump. It’s a clever, playful way of visualizing the Tetris effect and Henk’s obsessive relationship with the game, but it’s also one of the first signs of how the movie ends up feeling like it isn’t entirely sure of what kind of story it wants to be.
In addition to Henk, a Dutch-Indonesian expat operating out of Japan where he lives with his wife Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi) and their three children, Tetris also details how shady, business-minded power players like media tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), and businessman Robert Stein (Toby Jones) each had designs on taking the game worldwide without fully cluing the Soviets into the scale of their plans.
As Tetris introduces more and more of its central players with jarringly stylized 8-bit title cards, the movie stops feeling like a fast-paced, lighthearted fictionalization of Henk’s life and starts to ape the beats of a politically edged spy thriller. However, true to the real Henk Rogers that Egerton’s Ted Lasso-like performance may be, it feels utterly at odds with the dark and ominous tone Tetris takes on as it follows Henk to the USSR, where he plans to charm his way into government buildings and broker game distribution deals.
Ironically, though, it isn’t really until Tetris gets to Russia and starts to dig into just how precarious a situation people like Pajitnov were living in that the movie starts to take off as much as it can before it gets back to Henk and his bumbling quest to become the man who truly introduced handheld Tetris to the wider world.
Unless the idea of two-dimensional British villains shouting “sike!” at one another excites you, Tetris is deeply uninteresting whenever it’s spotlighting the various acts of treachery and backstabbing people committed in pursuit of profits from the game. But you can feel the beginnings of a genuinely riveting narrative whenever the movie steps back from the Tetris-specific drama to frame the game and its economic success outside of Russia as existential threats to the USSR that government officials like Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Stefan) want to neutralize.
Were the film a bit more concerned with illustrating why games like Tetris frightened the state, its approach to weaving the stories of Rogers and Pajitnov together might work far more effectively. Instead, though, Tetris goes for a simpler approach that makes for an easy to digest, less nuanced fictionalization of history.
Tetris already feels rather lost during a tense fight in the Rogers household that makes it seem like Henk somehow doesn’t know how to respond to his Japanese-speaking children in anything but English — a quirk that inadvertently highlights Apple’s decision to cast Egerton as a Dutch-Indonesian man. But by the time you get to the climatic chase scene in which cars racing through a city become pixelated illustrations, Tetris has gone through so many tonal shifts that it’s hard to tell whether it’s trying to go for a heightened kind of reality or if it’s trying to be funny.
From the somewhat lacking sets to the multiple instances of missing chemistry, no one piece of Tetris stands out as being especially worse than the others, and as a unit, they all fit together to tell a tale that’s rich in reverence for the game that put the Game Boy on the map. But Tetris, the game, deserves much more than what Apple’s Tetris has to offer.
Tetris also stars Togo Igawa, Ben Miles, Ken Yamamura, and Matthew Marsh. The film hits Apple TV Plus on March 31st.