As a Nintendo child of the 1980s, I don’t recall ever owning a Tetris cartridge for the original NES game console. I still have my original Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Journey (yes, a game inspired by the band), and many, many more including several Super Mario Bros. But I do remember obsessing over Tetris on my Nintendo Game Boy.
And by “obsessing” I mean literally taking it everywhere I went, playing it in restaurants, at grandparents’ homes, and even sneaking it out of the house to school where it was fully stolen out of my locker. But I’ve never really gotten over the intriguing mixture of challenge and simplicity the game offered. As a pre-teen gamer, though, I had zero idea of the international machinations required to bring it to Nintendo’s then revolutionary hand-held device.
This is exactly the story that AppleTV+’s Tetris sets out to tell. Starring Taron Egerton as game developer turned international businessman Henk Rogers, Tetris the film is a lot of things all at once. It’s a charming 80s-era throwback that will thrill anyone who still rocks out to “The Final Countdown.” It’s also a throwback to the kind of small-scale, very targeted true life stories that HBO used to roll out as TV movies of the week. And it’s a taut exploration of late 80s Soviet politics, corruption, and ultimate urge to break into the world of capitalism before the end of Communism. Tetris isn’t a perfect film, but it’s far better, far more complex than its deceptively simplistic video game namesake would have you believe.
As Rogers, Egerton anchors the entire film with his 80s-era capitalistic greed meshed with a genuine “nice guy” approach. Meaning, sure, he’s a businessman looking to become a millionaire, but he’s far better than the competition. Tetris briefly explores the origins of the video game, developed by Alexey Pajitnov while working at a government computer farm. When it becomes the first real viral video game, it’s kind of amazing that it ever broke out of the Soviet Union at all. And that’s part of the appeal of the film. We understand through several carefully scripted sequences the complexities of international business during Communist rule. The major players outside of Russia include a Czech game dealer, a corrupt British media mogul, multiple Soviet entities, and Egerton’s Rogers navigating all of this while living in Japan. One amusing side note is that the film manages to make the British characters, not the stereotypical Soviets, the ultimate villain. In real life, the British media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) was the father of the infamous Ghislaine Maxwell of Jeffrey Epstein fame. It’s not referenced here at all, but it’s a strange footnote to the story.
Visually, the film meshes fun 80s 8-bit visuals to orient the viewer within the era. The Soviet sequences are all impressively oppressive and grey as you’d imagine them to be. But what impressed me the most beyond Egerton’s committed performance was how well scripted the film is. It balances several scenes of Soviet intrigue with genuine pathos for characters within Communist oppression and those outside impacted by the myriad deals that transpired. The centerpiece of the film involves a complex series of negotiations between multiple entities within a Soviet government building, the representative navigating from one room to the next attempting to sort through the lies, deceit, fraud, and double-crosses. It only really breaks down at the very end where the Hollywood action sequence kicks-in, and the film shifts from a carefully constructed Soviet Succession into an 80s-era action film throwback. But even I didn’t mind that as it appropriately echoes films of the time.
Sure, Tetris is a little long, and the ending perhaps too conveniently devolves into an 80s thriller. Yet, it’s overall an extremely solidly delivered political thriller. One that gives us a story and performances far above its video game origins.
I’d like to see Monopoly do better.
Tetris premieres on AppleTV+ Friday, March 31.