Despite a surprisingly interesting true story, the historical thriller never comes together.
At first blush, the “real-life story” of the video game Tetris doesn’t seem like an especially engaging topic. Sure, some might be interested in the programming or the marketing, but that’s inside baseball at best.
However, as the Tetris trailer reveals, the route one of the most popular and profitable puzzle video games of all time took from creation to sensation is quite interesting indeed. It involves father-son British businessmen, an international video game rights acquirer, multiple Japanese video game manufacturers, corrupt Soviet politicians, a Dutch-born, American-raised businessman living in Japan on the edge of total bankruptcy, and a Russian computer programmer who created Tetris primarily out of boredom. It’s not just interesting. It’s downright fascinating.
Unfortunately, what reads as captivating on Wikipedia doesn’t translate into this feature film. Why does it feel so…slack? The culprit lies in pacing and the film’s inability to reconcile storytelling approaches.
Everything’s Here, None of It Works
Tetris, written by Noah Pink and directed by Jon S. Baird, seems largely faithful to the real story behind the video game’s journey from mid-80s USSR to computers, consoles, arcades, and handhelds all over the world. There is no doubt some tweaking here, some overexaggerating there, but as these projects go, it seems closer to the facts than most. Still, there’s faithfulness to the truth, and then there’s getting choked by it.
The film takes about a quarter of its time building to the story it wants to tell: how the relatively small fry Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) went behind the Iron Curtain and outworked everyone to secure the rights to Tetris. That’s not to say the film isn’t concerned with Tetris until that point. Only that it spins its wheel place setting. It’s a poor choice that robs the movie of momentum before it even gets off the starting block. More frustratingly, it doesn’t clear the deck for the rest of the film. All that precursor exposition doesn’t seem to reduce the need for explanation once the movie reaches Russia.
If the film could take out most of what occurs between Rogers explaining who supposedly has the current rights to Tetris internationally—Robert Stein (Toby Jones)—and the billionaire father and son he’s working for—Robert (Roger Allam) and Kevin (Anthony Boyle) Maxwell—and the realization that none of that is true, everything would be better for it. It would make for a faster, more limber film and let that turn hit quicker and more intensely.
A Genre Mash-Up That Never Gels
On the storytelling front, Tetris is essentially trying to be both an oral history of this rights race and a spy thriller. In practice, each element repeatedly gets in the other one’s way.
Staying faithful to the real-life bureaucratic back and forth that faced Rogers even when he unraveled who so many parties could think they owned Tetris, and yet none did, robs the spy thriller aspect of narrative tension. On the other hand, by repeatedly returning to the threats of violence represented by Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov) and his lackeys, the audience is often distracted from grasping fairly subtle nuances of Cold War-era international contract law.
A film can serve both masters. All The President’s Men, for example, manages to elucidate the procedural aspects of journalism, while capturing a sense of genuine danger, without either derailing the other. Spotlight is a more recent successful example. Unfortunately, Tetris cannot claim to be in the same league as either. When it wants to make you nervous, you’re still puzzling over letters of intent v. contracts. When it wants you to pay attention to the importance of rights payments, you’re stuck wondering if that guy is KGB.
Does Anyone Matter?
There are three characters who you care about in this film. Egerton’s “David set against corporate Goliaths,” Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), the creator of Tetris, and Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Stefan), the one person involved in the rights negotiations who is only motivated by doing the right thing. Three isn’t a bad number for some films. However, in the case of Tetris, the film throws so many other characters at the screen that it frequently squeezes out those three. Even Egerton, who is in nearly every scene, often feels given short shrift.
Therefore, the audience regularly feels alienated from the action on screen. Seeing a Russian operative show up at Rogers’ family home and threaten his wife should set a viewer on edge. Instead, it feels like an empty gesture. If the movie isn’t invested in her, or nearly anyone else, why should the audience care what happens to them? There is no thrilling catharsis when a businessperson’s criminal secret is revealed. There’s no real sense of terror when Russian agents of an unnamed agency “take someone for a ride.” It all feels like you are watching it through binoculars instead of being a part of it.
Some things work for Tetris. Egerton, when given a chance, lends Rogers a twitchy energy that overcomes the script making him a bit too noble until it suddenly needs him to be a bad dad. His developing alliance/friendship with Efremov’s Pajitnov gives the film its only sense of human connection.
I also appreciate the stylistic flourishes involving video game sprites to identify characters and throwback start-style screens to mark chapters in the film. A late car chase partially presented as 8-bit action doesn’t work as well, but it is at least a swing at something different.
Unfortunately, the good things unfold against a mountain of what doesn’t work. Save your quarters to play a different cabinet. This one just isn’t that fun.
Tetris seizes the arcades on AppleTV+ March 31.
Rating: 4.5/10 SPECS
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.