Tetris review: A well-crafted thriller
Laurence Boyce | On 31, Mar 2023
Director: Jon S Baird
Cast: Targon Egerton, Roger Allam, Toby Jones, Anthony Boyle, Nikita Yefremov
Given that Hollywood has made adaptations of Battleships, Garbage Pail Kids and numerous theme park rides, it’s surprising that it’s taken it this long to get around to Tetris. What’s even more surprising is that – rather than a story about a bunch of buildings being destroyed every time a complete line is made – it concentrates on the real life behind-the-scenes drama that occurred when some of the biggest companies in the Western world vied to gain the rights for a game that was created under the auspices of Soviet Russia. While “Intellectual Property Rights – The Movie” might sound as dull as dishwater, director Jon S Baird (probably best known for Filth and Stan & Ollie) has crafted a surprisingly engaging drama that places one of the world’s most famous video games at the heart of late 80s geo-politics.
1988. Video games are all the rage, with game consoles such as the NES sitting under the TV at homes across the world. Video game designer Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a Dutch-American who lives in Japan with his family, is making the rounds at a video game convention. There he discovers a game, which consists of bricks (aka Tetrominos) falling towards the bottom of the screen with the player required to manipulate them to create complete lines. He soon finds himself falling in love with this game – entitled Tetris – for it is simple, elegant and completely addictive.
Privy to the information that Nintendo will be releasing a new handheld console – the Game Boy – he argues that Tetris will be the perfect game to bundle it with. But as to who holds the rights? That answer is as complex as Tetris is simple. Other players in the game include software company Mirrorsoft, owned by media tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and headed up by his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), and the devious software buyer Roger Stein (Toby Jones).
Amid a series of disputed contracts and backroom deals, Hank decides to head to the origin of Tetris: Russia. Arriving in Moscow with little clue as to what to do, he soon meets the inventor of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), and the duo form a cautious bond. But this is Russia at the end of the 80s. The Cold War still rages on as the country of Russia looks to change. It soon becomes clear that the discussions over Tetris transcend mere video games: this is capitalism versus communism and idealism versus ideology. But the threats to Henk – and others – from a society in flux are all very real as Soviet Russia tries to beat the capitalists at their own game.
The very beginning of the film promises a slew of neon-drenched nostalgia. With some heavy exposition to get through, Tetris delivers numerous 80s clichés with 8-Bit graphic animation sequences and plenty of chance to see those iconic blocks as Henk explains the appeal of the game. But the carpet is soon pulled out from under us by the time Henk moves on to Moscow. The glittering delights of the decadent West are replaced by the drab and foreboding concrete greys of Soviet Russia (in reality much of it filmed in Glasgow and Aberdeen). It’s an effective juxtaposition, the tonal dissonance between Henk’s surroundings emphasising just how out of place he is. For what would initially seem to be a lightweight movie about a computer game, the film isn’t scared to head into some dark – both literally and figuratively – territory.
The film boasts that it’s “based on a true story”. Many of the elements are indeed true to life, from the major players involved to much of the complex legal wrangling. But the word “based” is still the operative one here. Adding a much more overt sheen of covert KGB scrutiny – with the character of Valentin Tribonof acting as a constant presence spying on Henk and Alexey as he tries to use the weight of the Soviet regime to get the result that he wants – the film tries to up the stakes in terms of immediate threat. Despite this falling into the realms of Hollywood excess (especially a car chase sequence which is filmed in such a way, with the cars pixellating as if they were in a game, to suggest that the film is having fun with its own treatment of reality) these moments do create a work that is surprisingly compelling. While its central thesis – that the negotiations over Tetris represented the first takeover of capitalism into a communist society that would soon crumble – is a tad overwrought, there’s some genuinely engrossing political and personal drama here.
The cast are all certainly game, with Egerton being engaging as Henk, a slightly puppyish presence being out of his depth yet with enough honesty, enthusiasm and natural intelligence to hold his own in the face of the business sharks surrounding him. Yefremov makes a good companion as Pajitnov, slightly tactiturn as the inventor of a game which – as it was made under the Communist regime – would never belong to him. The Maxwells, especially Allam under heavy prosthetics, make for easily hatable antagonist as do the myriad KGB agents attempting to undermine our heroes.
Much more akin to The Social Network than Pixels, Tetris does trade in large amount of nostalgia. Those with memories of the Cold War, the downfall of the Maxwells and – of course – playing Tetris itself will find themselves undoubtedly entertained. But even those not au fait with these might find them thoroughly surprised by what is a well-crafted thriller.
Tetris is out now in select cinemas.