Ah, Tetris. The beloved puzzle game that is effortlessly entertaining, dangerously addictive, and the source of a cutthroat conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Wait, what?
For those unaware of the turbulent history behind everyone’s favorite colorful falling blocks, the legal battle over Tetris took place in the late 1980s, and was long-winded, contentious and even dangerous. Such is the basis of Jon S. Baird’s Tetris, which follows Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a Dutch entrepreneur who journeys into the precarious heart of the Soviet Union in 1989 with the intention of porting Tetris, created by Soviet software wiz Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), onto the Game Boy and making millions. The Soviets aren’t too chuffed with the idea of selling their intellectual property to an American, however, and as a result, the two nations embark on a protracted, nail-biting, high-stakes stand-off ripe with blackmail and betrayals.
If you think this sounds like the footing for an epic, Shakespearean nonfiction flick a la The Irishman or The Social Network (the latter of which was an obvious touchstone), it pains me to inform you that it is pretty far from being any of those things. Instead, Tetris is repetitive, melodramatic and surprisingly uneventful.
Indeed, once the core action gets started, Tetris stays pretty stagnant. For the most part, the battle for one of the world’s most valuable properties comprises a series of uniform, gray-washed interior sets filled with the same men arguing about the same thing over and over (contracts, mainly), using overly dramatic and expositional language.
Of course, things do happen in Tetris, and there are moments that are sure to pique most viewers’ interest. When Henk marches into a Soviet government building without permission, for example, it’s bound to raise your pulse by at least a couple beats per minute; and a car chase done right is always a beautiful thing—especially when paired with Lorne Balfe’s groovy, video game-like score.
For the more touchy-feely type, Baird touches on the absurdity of putting your family’s life in jeopardy for a game. But alas, any weighty commentary or self-aware moments disappear just about as soon as they arise, and when all is said and done, Baird doesn’t make much of an effort to draw his viewers in by adding a substantial amount of dynamism or variation to Tetris’ two-hour runtime.
The quest of adapting the Tetris acquisition into a film raises a larger point: Not every good story necessarily yields a good movie. The meat of Tetris is often far too business-focused to be particularly thrilling. What’s interesting about a good business-related flick (we can refer back to The Social Network here) isn’t the memos and fine print, but the violent betrayals and feverish altercations. Tetris is largely lacking such pivotal moments.
Egerton does his best as Henk, but isn’t provided enough depth to justify his wild, fearless actions. Sure, if you think a video game acquisition is going to earn you millions, you’ll do some pretty crazy stuff to get your name on that title. But because we aren’t offered any insight into why (aside from those prospective millions) he wants to distribute Tetris so badly that he’s willing to get arrested or even killed for it, Henk’s life-threatening actions often feel borderline implausible. Instead of delving into a much-needed backstory, Baird merely gives us a cheeky, droll and hard-headed protagonist largely lacking in dimension.
This is the case for many other characters in Tetris, including businessman Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle), who doesn’t amount to more than a spoiled, bratty nepo baby, and his father Robert (Roger Allam), who is pretty much just a smarmy moneyman, through and through. Ayane Nagabuchi gives it her best shot as Henk’s business-savvy wife Akemi, but is reduced to the “wife who warns her husband he’s losing the forest for the trees” trope.
There is no shortage of wild, stranger-than-fiction tales out there (the legal battle for Tetris included), but it’s not enough to rely on the strength of the story alone when turning them into films. Sometimes they require extra backstory, emotional depth and creative liberty—just a little more effort to make the pieces truly fall into place.
Director: John S. Baird
Writer: Noah Pink
Stars: Taron Egerton, Toby Jones, Nikita Yefremov, Roger Allam, Anthony Boyle, Togo Igawa, Ken Yamamura, Ben Miles, Ayane Nagabuchi, Matthew Marsh, Rick Yune
Release Date: March 15, 2023 (SXSW)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.