Image via Apple
In 1989, when gaming classic Tetris launched, it took the world by storm. Now explored by Apple TV’s latest original that lands on Mar. 31, this fiendishly addictive, perfectly portable, and instantly accessible title would sell millions. However, behind that global success story sits something altogether more unbelievable, involving Russian premiers, newspaper tycoons, and some good old fashioned political wrangling.
Written by Noah Pink, directed by Jon S. Baird (Stonehouse), and starring Taron Egerton (Blackbird) – Tetris is nothing short of glorious. Packed with endless invention and more than a modicum of dry wit, it might just seem like a rags to riches origin story with an 8-bit overlay – but this retro retelling goes much deeper.
As owner of Bulletproof Software, Henk Rogers (Egerton) is trying to make a life for himself and his family in Japan. This Tetris tale gets a jump start when he stumbles on the game during a consumer electronics show. Drawn to the simplicity of interlinking blocks as a premise, he instantly spots it market value and set off in hot pursuit to retain the publishing rights.
This is where the film takes a refreshing turn, as an innumerable amount of interested parties all start jockeying for ownership. There is Robert Maxwell, a supremely caustic Roger Allam, who owns Mirrorsoft – a subsidiary of his newspaper empire which he allows his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle) to oversee.
In another corner working under the auspices of Andromeda Software is Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who might be in partnership with Mirrorsoft, but is desperately trying to make a deal for himself. Not to mention the Russians who are dealing with unrest as Communism crumbles, perestroika gets a foothold, and an economic and political restructuring gains momentum. In a word these are interesting times.
What that means for an audience, is that Tetris translates into an entertaining and always educational experience, which uses 8-bit soundtrack snippets, segues into block graphics, and pops with inspirational moments. That Egerton sits at the moral center of this story as Rogers – being a bastion of legitimate intentions whilst imbuing events with dramatic kudos – simply makes everything slot into place.
Perfectly balancing the coldly clinical Iron Curtain etiquette of Russia with a progressive Western world who believe in multi-cultural markets and a killer idea when they see it – Tetris is also an interesting lesson in capitalism over Communism. The money-grabbing KGB element wants its cut, while the Soviet-based Erlong tech firm, who employ Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), want advancement for Russia drives this intriguing drama.
It also segues into family drama, as Rogers and his family perpetually lose and gain the rights to this game, but it also makes as much sense as a buddy movie – especially when Henk connects with Alexey in those latter stages. Not only making this a film which mixes and matches genres but embracing the inherent underdog elements of power over persistence as well.
At certain points Tetris descends into farce, as contracts are bounced between opposing forces by Erlong head honcho Nikolai Belakov (Oleg Stefan), while KGB agent Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov) polices his every move. Ultimately though, it’s about the detrimental desire for money and power over all things, rather than an overwhelming urge to entertain the masses.
Standouts beyond the principal players include Igor Grabuzov as self-centered KGB agent Valentin, while Egerton continues to prove his versatility in another standout performance, which requires him to deliver on all levels.
Jones also sticks his landing as Robert Stein, adding another string to an already varied bow, by coming across put upon and conniving in equal measure. Not only giving this man villainous overtones, but also striving to expose his weaknesses at the same time. Beyond that, this film will ensure that audiences come away from Tetris enlightened.
In a society where cutting-edge tech makes mobile gaming on the move common place, and Steam Deck gives people PC power in their palm, seeing that progression explored on film is interesting. More than anything, Tetris is looking to remind audiences that gaming need not be complicated. Real world environments, AI inspired NPCs, and non-linear narratives were never the pinnacle of playability.
Back before the Westernization of the Eastern Bloc, when people still communicated over fax machines, and processing power was measured in megabytes gaming was simpler – if the tale of Tetris going global teaches us anything, it teaches us that.
Taron Egerton and Toby Jones make ‘Tetris’ one of the most intriguing video game movies for some time. Slick, savvy, and with no shortage of dry wit – audiences should lap this up.