Tetris blocks out a taut international story about popular video game
The term “origin story” is typically associated with superheroes these days, but a growing trend involves filmmakers taking a look back about famous consumer products came to be. In the next few months, Air (about Michael Jordan’s initial shoe contract with Nike), BlackBerry (about the now-defunct smartphone), and Flamin’ Hot (about the popular Cheetos flavor) will be released in either theaters or on streaming services.
And then there's Tetris, which tells the highly complicated story of how the video game made its way from the USSR to players’ fingers worldwide in the late 1980s. The protagonist of the film is Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a small-time video game developer who sees an opportunity when he plays the then-unknown game at an electronics show.
Understanding its potential right away, he convinces a sales rep to sell him distribution rights in Japan, where he lives with his wife and children, and where – not so coincidentally – Nintendo is located. What seems to be straightforward at first turns quickly into a quagmire, with Rogers competing against English software company Mirrorsoft for various rights, including handheld video games, as Nintendo is about launch a new system they call Game Boy.
Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Noah Pink, the film starts out relatively lighthearted, as the ever-optimistic Rogers bounces from country to country to convince a variety of people that his plans for the game will work. But the film gets more dramatic by the minute, with the second half – taking place almost entirely in the Soviet Union - taking on the feel of an international espionage story.
The filmmakers start with the premise that everyone watching knows Tetris and the immense popularity the game has enjoyed over the years, especially right after it launched. But even if somehow you aren’t one of those people, the film does a good job showing its importance, with multiple different parties fighting for its rights in four different countries.
Is all of what’s shown true? Probably not, but as with most movies that are “based on a true story,” there’s an understanding that the filmmakers use a good amount of dramatic license. On a pure filmmaking level, the story works because it shows the passion of Rogers for his business and the number of obstacles that stand in his way. It doesn’t hurt that one of those barriers is the USSR political machine, which practically has “evil” stamped all over it.
Egerton, known for the Kingsman series and playing Elton John in Rocketman, is a delight in this role. The somewhat shlubby character offers him a chance to utilize a different type of charm, and he knocks the part out of the park. Save for Toby Jones, most of the supporting roles are filled by lesser known actors, but all are enjoyable, especially Nikita Efremov and Oleg Stefan.
Tetris the movie could be viewed as just one big ad for the game that’s still popular, now in app form for smartphones. But the way the film is made, it’s easy to look past the commercial aspect of it and just enjoy the taut storytelling and interesting performances.
Tetris is now streaming on Apple TV+.