There are certain video games that are so momentous that you can remember the first time you ever played them. For me, it’s Marvel vs. Capcom 2, the original Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man, and Tetris. I’m probably not alone on that last score. Tetris is arguably the most popular video game of all time and is on the most console systems ever. Its origin also makes for a pretty nifty, if convoluted thriller, as seen in Jon S. Baird’s new film, aptly-named Tetris. This is no Social Network or boring Steve Jobs biopic, but is more akin to a John Le Carre political thriller where lives, even the fate of nations, are at stake.
Stretching the bounds of what it means to be a fact-based story, Tetris stars Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, a down-on-his-luck video game designer and publisher with big aspirations but little market for any of it. While at a Tokyo conference, he stumbles upon Tetris, the block-based video game that would eventually change his life. Henk, who realizes that everyone who plays the game becomes hooked on it, sets out to secure the publishing rights for video game consoles, coin-op arcade machines (remember those?), and anything else he can get his hands on.
However, Henk doesn’t realize he’s about to set off an international incident. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, Henk finds himself in the thick of Cold War hostilities, battling it out with Russian government agents who would just as soon kill this outsider for trying to bring something of theirs to the outside world. See, Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), a lowly Russian employee who designed the game in his meager apartment. Alexey knows the crushing weight of his oppressive government well, and has little interest in getting on its bad side. Fortunately for him, Henk has enough enthusiasm and dogged determination for them both.
Tetris finds Hank hopping around the globe, from Japan to Russia and back again multiple times. Along the way he does business with Nintendo and gets a sneak peek at their ultima weapon, the Game Boy, which would eventually be the vehicle to sell millions of Tetris cartridges. But Henk also finds himself in the crosshairs of shady company Mirrorsoft and its sleazy owner Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his bossy son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), also a scheming middle-man (Toby Jones) looking out for himself.
This very easily could’ve been a very dull movie about billion-dollar companies trading legal and licensing jargon back and forth, but screenwriter Noah Pink levels up everything so the real-life story plays out like a video game experience. Henk finds himself fleeing deadly Russian agents, getting ensnared by dangerous femme fatales, and even getting behind the wheel of a car chase alongside Nintendo big-shots Howard Lincoln (Ben Miles) and Minoru Arakawa (Ken Yamamura). Hard to believe? Absolutely! But far more entertaining than the actual story. Nobody wants to see that.
Helping to spruce things up are generally eye-catching visuals that call back to the graphical styles of the ’80s. 8-bit cut scenes move along the action, while Henk and the supporting cast routinely find themselves reimagined as video game creations. It’s all quite cleverly done.
Egerton is the heart and soul of the film, just as Henk Rogers is the heart and soul of Tetris. What Henk saw in Tetris was a game that could bring people from other countries together, at a time when the world couldn’t have felt more at odds. That’s a lot of weight to put on a simple video game. While Henk is portrayed as a savvy, slick businessman, we always feel that his heart is in the right place. It’s a delicate balance, but Egerton, genuinely one of the most likable actors around, gets it.
As briskly as things move along for much of the film, it does get bogged down pretty deep in Russian politics and corporate jargon. It’s an unfortunate side effect of a story so mired in legal maneuverings. The screenplay is overloaded with exposition just to keep the audience aware, but it also grinds the film to a halt. As Henk careens towards the final level, Tetris finds its fun once again, all of the blocks snapping into place for an entertaining film worthy of such a historic game.
Tetris opens in theaters on March 24th, then Apple TV+ streaming on March 31st.