Directed by John S. Baird, Tetris follows Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a small-time promoter who discovers a game that he believes to be a game-changer. Risking everything he has, Rogers travels to the Soviet Union in order to secure the distribution rights to this proverbial gold mine. However, in the process, he finds himself confronted by the evils of the Cold War as he attempts to navigate military protocol and keep out of prison. Joining forceds with inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), Rogers soon discovers that money talks—but family lasts.
Video game movies are all the rage right now, whether it’s Super Mario Bros, the post-apocalyptic The Last of Us or the lucrative Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. However, thankfully, Tetris doesn’t attempt to use its subject matter in any form of distracting manner. Although this is one of the best-known titles in history, a game about the placing of blocks in sequential lines simply doesn’t provide the storytelling opportunities that others might offer.
Instead, with its emphasis on the boardroom, Tetris feel similar to The Social Network. Like Fincher’s Oscar-nominated film, Tetris focuses its story on legal posturing behind the scenes. However, the film also tries to make the drama as much about the relationships between players than it does crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s.
And, frankly, it works really well.
Admittedly, films that focus on legal documents are often difficult to make energetic, regardless of its subject matter. Long meetings that deal with the intricacies of IP ownership are rarely interesting to watch. However, Baird does a good job of keeping things. Although the real story would’ve likely taken countless meetings in one location, the film keeps the camera moving, bouncing from room to room. (In fact, they even joke about how ridiculous it is that people are moving between spaces at an almost breakneck space.)
In addition, giving the film some added pop are its visuals, which juxtapose the bleakness of the Cold War era with the snap of video game graphics. Baird wants this situation to feel like a game, even if there are lives at stake. In fact, even the soundtrack does a wonderful job of tying the game’s iconic soundtrack to the events unfolding before us. (Once you’ve heard the theme sang by a Russian chorus, you’ll never on hear it the same way again.) in short, Baird does everything possible to make hours of legal speak seem intense and thrilling. It’s not an easy task but, despite the endless stream of meetings and back room conversations, Tetris manages to put the pieces together.
As Rogers, Egerton has a certain freneticism about him that makes him feel livelier than other boardroom beasts. While not entirely a villain, neither is his portrayal of Rogers entirely heroic either. There’s no question that Egerton’s smile and wit give the character an instant likability. At the same time, the character’s pressure to make a deal never fully allows us to trust him. While this will not be a career-defining performance for the actor, his energy and enthusiasm gives the film the pop it needs to keep moving.
What’s most surprising about Tetris though its willingness to highlight the evils of man as opposed to demonizing the communist system. Set during the fall of the Soviet Union, Tetris does a good job of pointing out that the evils of man stem from within as opposed to any particular political ideology. Capitalist greed is left to run amok, steamrolling anyone in its wake. At the same time, the communist system is showing to stem from that same power-hungry greed. (In fact, at one point, a character even suggests that the communism rule defies its true intent because of toxicity and greed.)
This is a film that wants to get underneath any particular political divide and suggest the true heroes are those who are willing to do what’s best for everyone, as opposed to just a few. As a result, Tetris walks a fascinating ideological line. Although the plucky American may be the one wheeling and dealing, we also acknowledge that the American Dream is more than money or fame. Meanwhile, the film even suggests that true Communism would inspire and equalize, rather than divide by fear or military might. Instead, it is about family, supporting others, and elevating those in need. (Though, if you can make a few bucks on the side as well, Tetris is more than willing to accept that as a part of the process.)
Like the blocks themselves, Tetris starts out slow but builds up steam to almost frenetic pace. But, while its backroom business storytelling could have been game over, thankfully the pieces fall into place.
Tetris is available on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 31st, 2023.