The Game Boy was slightly before my time, but I remember the Game Boy Color vividly. It was an introduction to handheld consoles, and a chance to finally have Mario and Pokémon in my pocket. Yet to my surprise, the best companion for long road trips was neither Pikachu nor those bouncy Italian plumbers; it was a game comprised of falling blocks and the Russian folk song “Korobeiniki.” It was Tetris.
I’d been aware of Tetris before then. It existed on my mother’s computer, but it was barely considered a video game there. Mario or Sonic were games that kids played. But Tetris was for everyone; she’d even play it on occasion. This was the power which made it the second highest selling game franchise of all-time: Everyone gets addicted to visions of falling blocks. Getting those visions in front of everyone, however, turns out to be wildly more difficult than most gamers ever knew. It also makes for a hell of a picture.
Less an actual “video game movie,” or even another drama about tech innovation gone wrong, Jon S. Baird’s Tetris is a strange and delightful Cold War thriller where the offices of Nintendo hold a gravity usually reserved for parliament buildings, and licensing rights are whispered of in the same conspiratorial tones as state secrets. Of course, in Soviet Russia, they were just that. Hence at a time when most tech biopics still chase the myopic trajectory of David Fincher’s The Social Network, Tetris is a quirky blend of Moneyball meets Argo (or perhaps Kingsman would be more apropos given Taron Egerton’s central performance). In other words, it’s a thoroughly unique rendering of a high-stakes origin story about falling blocks. Who knew?
In the movie, Egerton plays Henk Rogers, a game designer and entrepreneur who is Dutch by birth but a man of the world by experience. He grew up and went to college in the U.S. and got married in Japan after following his wife there. He is also among the first Westerners (at least on the far, far side of the Atlantic) to see the appeal of Tetris when he stumbles upon it at a video game conference in Las Vegas in 1988. Having already become a highly popular time-waster in the Soviet Union, the game now carries an exotic mystique in the U.S. where it’s currently being sold as computer software.
Henk sees the opportunity and cozies up with wealthy yet shady British media baron Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his arrogant son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), both of whom claim to have the licensed rights for Tetris outside the USSR. More intriguing still, they’ll sell Henk the license to make Tetris for the video game market in Japan, which is a golden foothold into working with the video game company of the ‘80s, Nintendo. In fact, Nintendo is so smitten with the game that their U.S. branch is even toying with the idea of packaging Tetris with their new invention… the Game Boy.
There’s only one little snag: the Maxwells and their liaison Robert Stein (Toby Jones) don’t actually have the video game, arcade, or handheld rights to Tetris; they don’t like each other; and now the Soviet government has found out the capitalists are taking them for a ride. So in the dying days of the USSR, Rogers has the incredulous idea to fly right into Moscow as a supposed tourist and ask around until he can find the man who designed the game, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). Along the way, he gets the attention of the KGB, discovers Moscow nightlife, and sparks a bidding war for the rights of Tetris that will go all the way up to Mikhail Gorbachev.
The choice of centering the Tetris movie on the man who brought it to the West, or at least popularized it there, is a canny one. On the one hand, it is commercially shrewd to have a Westerner as the lead of an American movie; on the other more creative side, it also positions Tetris as more than just a story of innovation struggling to get out from beneath the weight of the Iron Curtain. This is now essentially an absurdist espionage thriller where the stakes from the outside should appear low, but when KGB agents are threatening Henk’s family in Tokyo, it is anything but.
Baird and screenwriter Noah Pink definitely sensationalized elements of the real life events (though not as many as you might suspect), but they also know how to let the ludicrous nature of the story play to their advantage. The film has a zippy, happy-go-lucky joie de vivre that is impossible to resist. This certainly makes it a piece with the Marv umbrella it was made under (the Matthew Vaughn production company that in addition to producing his own Kingsman movies also produced pictures like Rocketman and The Debt). But as an underrated director in his own right, Baird brings the same visual flair that made James McAvoy’s corrupt copper flick, Filth, a stylized amusement.
The falling tetromino blocks from Tetris occasionally make cameo appearances in the film as Henk salivates at the commercial possibilities of the video game. Elsewhere the picture turns into eight-bit graphics with MIDI music during select transitions and establishing shots. The effect is ingratiating, like a pleasant bloke at a pub getting you to lean into his wild story. It is also aided tremendously by what might be the best performance of Egerton’s career.
As the eager and relentlessly optimistic Henk Rogers, Egerton turns relentless desperation into a paradoxical authenticity. He comes across like the last honest carnival barker. The fact you wonder if such a thing exists is part of the performance’s charm. That only comes into sharper relief when contrasted by a string of sketchy captains of industry. As the Soviet incredulity and subterfuge grows, the communist regime deliberately creates a situation in which Rogers, executives of Nintendo of America, European middleman Robert Stein, and the Maxwell family are all unknowingly bidding against each other in the same government building (which more or less did happen).
Henk’s ability to see through all the greed and Soviet graft in order to recognize the genius of inventor Alexey also creates just enough heart to anchor the movie through its labyrinthine plotting and occasional moments of an overplayed hand. Indeed, emphasizing the fact Soviet security forces spy on any foreigner in Moscow is one thing, extending that to a tongue-in-cheek car chase risks filling up your screen with a few too many blocks.
A few ludicrous plot twists aside, Tetris is a genuine winner, and a movie who’s fun spreads like wildfire in a crowd. It’s somewhat a shame, then, that the film will be seen by most audiences on Apple TV+ at the end of the month. However, if you have such a subscription, this is a must watch. Even if you don’t, like when the game came to the Game Boy, this Tetris should be a killer app for its streamer.
Tetris premiered at SXSW on March 15 and is released on March 31 on Apple TV+.