2023 is proving to be the year of commercial business biopics. These movies come and go (remember The Founder?). Over the next few months, we’re going to see: Air, BlackBerry, Spinning Gold and Flamin’ Hot. Before that though, those with an AppleTV + subscription can check out Tetris. I can’t tell you how much time I sunk into Tetris over my far too many years… especially as a GameBoy owner in the last century. This nostalgia is my childhood. Will the Apple TV+ flashy political thriller tap into a generation’s nostalgic “feels”? Or will Tetris go the way many business biopics do… straight to the value DVD bin?
Tetris follows video game publisher Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) as he struggles to secure the rights to Tetris. The only problem is, the game’s creator Alexey (Nikita Efemov) lives in the Soviet Union and the Communist Party isn’t going to let the game escape the Iron Curtain that easily. Toby Jones, Anthony Boyle, Roger Allam, Ben Miles and Igor Grabuzov co-star in the movie. Jon S. Baird directs Tetris from a script by Noah Pink.
In Tetris, Baird finds himself with a difficult task. He must find a new and fresh take on an age-old genre, the “trapped behind the Iron Curtain” political thriller. James Bond contended with many crazy Russians on their home soil throughout the 1980s. During the decade, even Night Court brought us plenty of Soviet zaniness thanks to Yakov Smirnoff.
Tetris walks a fine line. The movie is certainly at its strongest when it dives into its political thriller roots. In order to get there, however, there’s a lot of story which must be told. In fact, it isn’t until deep into the second act that the film really finds its footing.
Before that, Tetris is mired in a narrative that is half 1980s period piece and half love letter to the video game business and its technicalities. And when I say video game business, it is very “inside baseball.” There’s lots of talk about coding and legal rights. In the wrong hands, this script could be catastrophically boring.
To avoid this, Baird leans heavily into 1980s nostalgia. This ranges from a killer soundtrack to the integration of fondly remembered, 8-bit imagery in place of establishing shots. This is ultimately fluff meant specifically to keep the plot moving through the slower first two acts.
Those without an interest in video games will find themselves bored to tears, especially through the first half. Watching Tetris, I found myself repeatedly reminded of the 1983 film WarGames. While Tetris is certainly packaged as a political thriller, this is instead a movie about technology and the people around it.
As the second act crests to its eventual conclusion, Tetris finally explores its tense and interesting political elements. This is when the film is at not only its most interesting, but also its strongest.
This is not only when the script is able to really explore the narrative tension, but we’ve also watched more than an hour of script and character development. By this point, we know these men and in many cases, we feel for them.
Much of Tetris‘ success rests on its talented cast’s shoulders. Taron Egerton is a joy to watch as Henk Rogers. Throughout the film, the talented young actor shows a respectable restraint. As Henk is written and with the movie’s strong 1980s nostalgia, it’s surprising that Henk isn’t depicted with more “American-ness” in all his cowboy boot-wearing glory. You know the type.
Instead, Egerton, who is a brilliant up-and-coming talent, hones in on this man in all his ambition and desperation. Henk is never a caricature. Rather, he is head-to-toe 1980s aspirationalism. This is the era of Wall Street and Gordon Gekko after all.
Egerton isn’t the only MVP in what proves to be a surprisingly stacked cast. Actor Nikita Efremov is quietly powerful as Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov in his Hollywood feature debut. The performer worked steadily on both the big and small screens in Russia for almost twenty years. However, aside from some small television roles, this is Efremov’s biggest role in the United States to date.
As Pajitnov, Efremov is Tetris‘ heart. While we spend the most time with Henk, it is Alexey who carries the film’s emotion. As mentioned, Tetris (the game!) is truly his baby. He created it. Though sadly, he is the only character who doesn’t stand to benefit financially from the game’s sale. At the same time though, Alexey is perhaps the most affected by the narrative’s life-or-death stakes. While Henk is able to return home to Tokyo, Alexey is home. He has a life and family to protect.
It seems due to the reliance on 1980s nostalgia that Tetris ends up presenting a very simplistic and largely westernized presentation of this complicated political relationship. To put it bluntly, Tetris feels like a 1980s Hollywood film. There’s a distinct sense of, “Commies! Am I right?” as a prevailing view. There’s little attempt to understand the Russian characters outside of their roles as cogs inside the “backward” Soviet establishment. Henk is our hero. He’s an outsider in a strange land and he’s supposed to win the day.
Meanwhile, Tetris‘ marketing takes great care to craft itself as the true story of the game’s creation. Ultimately, historical works and period pieces are shaped by perspective. History is told by the winners and this is true in Tetris’ case as well. As a viewer, I found myself pulled back from the film as the ending credits rolled, showing the real-life Henk and his daughter Maya (and current CEO of Tetris) serving as executive producers on the film.
This perhaps frustrated me but also interested me. The Rogers family is of course telling their own story as they see it. However, I found myself wondering how their closeness to this narrative shaped the structure and perspective of what is ultimately a complicated political story. What was the reality? Only historical research will provide the answer.
When all is said and done, I found myself a bit torn as to where I sit on Tetris. A talented cast and fun aesthetic definitely make this movie an interesting watch for those with a gaming passion. However, so much of the opening act is deeply reliant on gaming as a business, that this fascinating political history fades deep into the background. With that being said though, those interested in gaming or its history, as well as any suckers for 1980s nostalgia should find Tetris a welcomed delight.
Tetris debuts on AppleTV + beginning March 31, 2023.
Check out our other movie reviews, here.
This review was originally published on 3/29/23.