THE STORY – Henk Rogers discovers Tetris in 1988, and then risks everything by travelling to the Soviet Union, where he joins forces with inventor Alexey Pajitnov to bring the game to the masses.
THE CAST – Taron Egerton, Toby Jones, Nikita Yefremov, Roger Allam & Anthony Boyl
THE TEAM – Jon S. Baird (Director) & Noah Pink (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 118 Minutes
They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and the story of “Tetris” is a perfect example. When Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), a computer program developer working for the Soviet government, first developed the block-stacking video game to keep himself entertained in his free time, he never could have guessed that it would become so popular as to find its way around the Iron Curtain to America. When video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers (Taran Egerton) first played Tetris at a consumer electronics show in 1988, he could never have guessed the globe-trotting, intrigue-filled journey it would take him on. Henk believed in the potential of Tetris so much that he sunk everything he had into acquiring the Japanese rights to the game, only to find that several others also had rights and wanted more in different territories and on different platforms. Battling against British media magnate Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), and another video game rights dealer named Robert Stein (Toby Jones) – as well as various factions within the Soviet government – Henk had to rely on his good old-fashioned American moxie in order to gain access to the Soviet Union and outthink (and outbid) his competitors.
The story takes so many wild twists and turns that there’s seemingly a new surprise around every corner. Screenwriter Noah Pink has an excellent ear for dialogue, with many great one-liners and callbacks. The film is always entertaining, even when it’s talking about the scintillating subject of video game publishing and distribution rights – the contract negotiations are some of the funniest scenes in the film, as well as the most thrilling. While Henk is the main character, we spend these scenes following Soviet official Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Stefan) as he tries to untangle the twisted web of just who, exactly, owns what and how much they paid to whom to get it. Director Jon S. Baird keeps everything moving at a good clip, aided by the editing team of Colin Goudie, Ben Mills, and Oscar winner Martin Walsh. Films that understand the full potential of editing as a comedic tool are all too rare, and “Tetris” is one of them, always cutting at just the right frame to elicit laughter.
The fast pace keeps the film entertaining and ensures it never gets bogged down in minutiae. Still, it also allows for quieter moments with Henk and his family, solidly establishing the stakes at play and getting us emotionally invested in the story. It also helps that Egerton is a delight as Henk. Like a teddy bear with a spine of steel, he is simultaneously adorable and strong. He refuses to take “no” for an answer from anybody, barreling his way into Nintendo headquarters, Alexey’s home, and even tightly locked-down Soviet government buildings, but he’s so charming that he gets away with it. Egerton hasn’t had many opportunities to play a role like this, and he rises to the occasion splendidly. He brings all of his considerable charisma to bear and adopts a “down-home” American accent to convey Henk’s folksiness and business savvy, beautifully balancing the comedy and pathos of the story. Without a strong anchor at its center, “Tetris” could quickly fly off the rails, and Egerton stands strong amidst all the crazy plot and colorful side characters. He makes it look effortless when it’s anything but.
The one element that slightly fails the film is its stylistic flourishes. Taking inspiration from its source materials, the film is divided into sections; each introduced as a new video game level, complete with animated intros in the 8-bit video game style. Similarly, the central characters are introduced as “Player One,” “Player Two,” and so on. It’s a great idea, and using this animation style for scene transitions works well. But Baird also inserts it into a late-film car chase sequence, with less successful results. Sometimes we’re watching the chase like it’s a video game; sometimes, the cars just suddenly become pieces of 8-bit animation as they hit things. It’s a bold move, but while the bits that look like a video game are fun and could have worked independently, the attempt to mix the animation into the live-action settings doesn’t entirely work.
While it’s a pity that the film’s biggest risk doesn’t pay off, “Tetris” is so entertaining on the whole that it doesn’t matter. The film’s unique blend of political thriller, comedy of manners, and legal drama is unlike anything in recent memory and plays wonderfully well. With a strong lead performance, a quotable script, and a genuinely surprising twisty story, “Tetris” ensures that you’ll never see those falling blocks in the same way again.