I don’t care how aggressively mediocre a movie is for about 75% of its runtime. If it ends with characters frantically racing to make a plane whilst outrunning goons, boarding that plane, and lifting off just in time to avoid certain peril, I’ll nod and smile affirmatively as if I’ve just seen one of the best films of the year. It’s an added bonus when the film ends with a bro-hug and Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities” plays.
The human mind is prone to recency bias, so the triumphant ending of Jon S. Baird’s Tetris might negate all the underwhelming exposition and countless plot-threads that came before it in the eyes of some viewers. But after nearly two hours of staring at a gray, brooding biopic about the creation of one of the colorful and cognitively stimulating games in history, the climax was merely a welcomed burst of energy for an otherwise sullen origins story.
In relaying how one of the simplest games has one of the most complicated development stories this side of Pong, Tetris drops us right in the middle of the thick of it. It’s 1988 and Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), the founder of a company called Bullet-Proof Software, stumbles into his new obsession. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, he discovers Tetris, a simple puzzle video game, which is so addicting, it pulls him away from his own complex creation.
The game was created by a Soviet programmer named Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), and Rogers sees it as a force unto itself capable of breaking the language barrier and revolutionize puzzle gaming as a whole. One problem. Because it was created in the Soviet Union, the country sees it as their property and theirs only. Obtaining the desktop, console, and handheld rights and getting full legal clearance to sell and market Tetris will be a battle that involves several meetings with corporate bigwigs, many trips to the USSR and Tokyo, and a slew of threats from Soviet officials.
Those expecting a retelling of how the game was created, or the story of Pajitnov’s life in Soviet Russia, will be left gravely underwhelmed by Tetris. Baird — who directed Stan & Ollie, the low-key biopic on Laurel and Hardy’s cinematic partnership — and screenwriter Noah Pink (National Geographic’s Genius) choose to make this film an espionage thriller. While the international politics of trying to acquire Tetris‘ rights had to be a daunting, and in parts dangerous, challenge for Rogers and those involved, Baird’s film unfolds like a Bond film, with constant globetrotting and an uneven mix of dramatic, thriller, and comedic tones.
As if to tease the more easygoing, free-form movie we could’ve gotten, the filmmakers shoehorn video-game elements into this gritty spy movie. The film is divided into “levels,” with 8-bit graphics bookending chapters of this story. During these interludes, Rogers is represented by a generic-looking NES-era video game character. In the middle of the aforementioned climactic car chase, Pajitnov races down tight and congested Moscow streets, slide-swiping pixelated vehicles that make simple sound effects when struck. These elements aren’t even in Tetris, and certainly don’t fit with the project’s brooding thriller angle. Instead, it communicates the very real thought that the people behind the film don’t grasp what video games of this era actually are/were.
One intriguing character is Robert Maxell (Roger Allam), a corrupt, fraud-committing British elite who owned the Mirror Group. Working alongside him like an obedient lapdog is his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), who is trying to profit off of Tetris in a way that conflicts the interest of a legal negotiator named Robert Stein (Toby Jones). It’s worth noting that Robert is the same Maxwell who is the father of Ghislaine (you know the one). Surely if Tetris ended up as a six-to-ten part miniseries, we would’ve gotten at least a cameo.
My point is that in order to succeed — especially with this unconventional spy formula hamfisted onto a story about the release of a game — Baird’s film probably would’ve been better served as a miniseries. As a two-hour feature, the film recklessly zigs and zags, and immediately gets off on the wrong foot by plunging us into the story at such a point that it feels like we missed the opening 20 minutes. When reading the “History” section of Tetris‘ Wikipedia article proves more insightful and suspenseful, you know the big-screen adaptation of the saga was truly a colossal miscalculation.
NOTE: Tetris is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.
Starring: Taron Egerton, Nikita Efremov, Sofia Lebedeva, Anthony Boyle, Ben Miles, Roger Allam, Toby Jones, and Togo Igawa. Directed by: Jon S. Baird.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!