One thing’s for certain: Mustaches are in for Apple TV+ this month. In addition to a certain American-football-coach-in-London, we have Jon S. Baird’s newest film, Tetris. The movie tells a little-known story about video game history that blends late-Cold War thrillers with boardroom drama. It succeeds in the former but falls just short in the latter. Tetris doesn’t quite hit the high score – but, like the game itself, it’s a fun way to spend some time.
Tetris begins by throwing a myriad of information at us about the game’s creation and the complicated history of its rights. For me, a person unversed in the complexities of video game licensing, this introduction was a little jarring; it’s difficult to remember such a rush of information. The saving grace is Taron Egerton, who, as game developer and distributor Henk Rogers, matches this frenetic energy with his own excitement and enthusiasm about the game. Aside from the flood of details, the beginning of the film at least does a good job of making sure the audience knows how important Tetris is and why each character would be so invested in its proliferation.
Once Tetris catches its breath, it’s much smoother sailing. After a mix-up with the gaming rights, Rogers heads to Moscow to see if he can set things straight. He’s not the only one interested, though, and must contend with entrepreneur Robert Stein (an always-welcome Toby Jones) and British media conglomerates Robert and Kevin Maxwell (Roger Allam and Anthony Boyle, respectively, who look just like their real-world counterparts). While in Moscow, Rogers also meets the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov (a charming Nikita Yefremov); the effortless chemistry that the two share makes them a charming duo. From there, meetings, misunderstandings, and even blackmail ensue. (Though, for me, the largest shock came after the film, when I looked up Kevin Maxwell and realized who his sister is.)
Unfortunately, Tetris also employs a lot of the the clichés you’d expect from a film set in this time and place: a fallout between friends; corruption; marriage troubles; the endless gray of the late Soviet Union and the clash between communism and capitalism. Some beats feel predictable, too. And the constant legalese and discussion of rights get a little confusing. At least the film knows enough to point out its shortcomings, with an exasperated Rogers mentioning the breakneck pace at which his Soviet contacts move from room to room. However, I need to give props to Igor Grabuzov, who portrays Valentin Trifonov, the foremost Soviet government figure. Trifonov is legitimately creepy and never gets cartoonish – Grabuzov gives a scarily human face to the threat upon which the film’s conflict depends.
I hadn’t seen the trailer for Tetris before watching the movie, and I’m glad I didn’t. Some of its most fun visual effects were a complete surprise to me and even drew me back in near the film’s end. The pixelated setting cards and travel montages do get a bit repetitive – when the technology is applied to a car chase, though, it elevates the story and immediately ups the energy. Tetris’ tense, fun third act saved the movie for me, something quite difficult to do.
And because I apparently cannot review anything without taking note of its score, I’m happy to report that composer Lorne Balfe elevates the already-iconic Tetris theme into a dramatic spectacle. As soon as the film began and I heard a pumped-up version of the game’s classic soundtrack, I knew I was in for a fun ride. Like the visual effects, it can also overwhelm at times, but everything comes together for an exciting conclusion. The needle-drops are similarly fantastic, too, with classics like “The Final Countdown” and “Holding Out for a Hero” playing in multiple languages to thematic effect.
No, Tetris doesn’t always work. It’s still an interesting watch carried through by an energetic performance from Egerton, who’s already proven himself a malleable actor whether playing a spy or Elton John. In its best moments, this movie leans into its thrills rather than trying to make meetings about intellectual property rights feel electric. Video game fans will love that this moment in history gets the big-screen treatment, and even if Tetris does seem like a bit of an advertisement (Pajitnov, Rogers, and his daughter Maya serve as executive producers), it’s a story that I hadn’t heard before and am now eager to learn more about.