Directed by Jon S Baird | Written by Noah Pink | 118 min | ▲▲▲▲△ | Apple TV+
With his collaborators, Haligonian screenwriter and filmmaker Noah Pink has delivered a surprisingly entertaining tale of the backstory of Tetris, the Russian-designed video game that’s spent more than 30 years consuming the work and extracurricular time of gamers all over the planet. Its Soviet origins from before the fall of The Wall have long been known but shrouded in gamer myth, but with Dutch American sales guy Henk Rogers, his daughter, Maya, and original programmer Alexey Pajitnov on board as Executive Producers, even if Pink’s taken some creative liberties — I’m guessing the car chase is a fiction — he’s adapted the story directly from those who lived it.
It’s 1988, and Henk (Taron Egerton) lives in Tokyo with his family. At a Las Vegas sales event he stumbles upon this game, Tetris, and wants a piece of it for the Japanese market. He goes to Nintendo to get support. Tetris is being licensed worldwide for PC consoles by a man named Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who’s also been talking to media magnate Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle).
Henk jumps from international location to location as he meets with partners to shore up his deals while trying to get home to Tokyo in time for his young daughter’s school performance. This is pretty standard workplace dramedy stuff, but the playful visual detail of transitioning scenes with animation mimicking the look of 8-bit video games helps keep it light and frothy.
Things get interesting at the start of the second act where Henk goes to Moscow on a tourist visa to negotiate directly with the government-run company that owns the rights to Tetris. A happy capitalist, he has no idea how things work in the Soviet Union, what kind of danger he’s in when he gets there, or who he can trust. Cue the cold war thriller portion of the picture.
Henk finagles a meet-up with an executive at the Russian company, and we get to see how the Russians are being pitched by Stein and Maxwell, too, in a farcical room-switching parade — everyone wants to control as many rights as possible around this game, especially for the Gameboy handheld device.
But only Henk — a former programmer himself — connects with Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) to talk about his passion for Tetris, and their growing friendship helps give Henk the edge.
The intrigue brought forward by the Russians really takes the movie to another level. Not everyone has the State’s best interest at heart, with corruption and greed very much in evidence. All the 1980s details really helps to set the film in a time and a place — it peaks with a mid-movie party scene scored to Europe’s 1986 banger, “The Final Countdown”.
It’s a little hard to figure this picture’s effort at relevance. The Russian regime in 2023 is as grim and repressive as it was under Soviet rule, but while the picture does a terrific job getting us to cheer for the two guys who just want to get this great game out into the world, those stakes otherwise remain resolutely medium. And at this point in late capitalism there’s something a little regressive about movies that celebrate the global distribution of a product and a small number of people getting rich off it. (This week’s Air does something similar, but with dudes who got rich thanks to Michael Jordan and aggressive branding.)
Still, it feels entirely churlish to moan when Tetris is having so much damn fun.