Tetris tells the unseen story of the vicious battle over the rights of one of the most addictive games ever made. As the marketing promises, the attempts to acquire exclusive ownership over the video game brought great trepidation in Russia. There are factual details depicted in Tetris but the adaptation of the story behind the Russia-made video game is exaggerated to silliness.
Tetris is pieced together with mustache-twirling villains and numerous boardroom business conversations that feel repetitive The result is a film that wants to be more interesting than it actually is on screen.
[Warning: spoilers from Tetris are below!]
Tetris – the story
The film centers on Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), owner of Bullet-Proof Software, who is in the business of game acquisitions. At the start of the film, we see Rogers attempting to secure financing to acquire rights to the famous game. The film then takes us down a series of flashbacks of how he discovered Tetris. The narrative weaves a series of business meetings involving characters such as Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who made his flimsy agreement for rights by fax with both the creator of Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) and a Russian state-owned import/export company called ELORG.
Additionally, we see more narrative threading of Rogers’ meeting with Nintendo about licensing the game rights for the system, through Bullet-Proof Software. And then there is Mirrorsoft, run by the Maxwells, who are under the impression they can obtain rights through their connections with Vladimir Gorbachev.
Once the chess players are in place, Rogers, Stein, and the Maxwells begin extreme negotiations with the Russians over who will win handheld, console, and arcade rights to Tetris. Misunderstandings transpire as key Russian figures believe the game was being sold by Robert Stein illegally. And to add more falling bricks to the chaos, some of Gorbachev’s men have agendas of their own regarding the profits of the video game.
The fascinating humble beginnings in this Apple TV+ film
Tetris begins like playing the game itself. It’s energetic and magnetic as we watch each of the puzzle pieces fall into place. We learn to love Henk Rogers and empathize with his ambition. He has a caring family with whom he is working to build a life with in Japan– so he bets everything–including his house–on Tetris. Taron Egerton is a wonderful leading man and carries the film as Rogers perfectly well.
As the movie progresses, we are given insight into the origins of the game and how Alexey Pajitnov created the idea of Tetris, and the string of channels the game traveled to catch the attention of buyers beyond the Russian border. It’s in these moments Tetris feels energized and full of nostalgic wonder — especially when the film turns a corner to the introduction of the Game Boy.
There is a sentimental story surrounding Rogers and Pajitnov. Everyone involved in the battle for the rights to Tetris has something to gain if a deal is struck — everyone except for Alexey Pajitnov, who has no equitable right to gain a profit from the game due to Communist policies in Russia. Just like in the real-life story, Rogers is the only one who takes an interest in making sure Pajitnov sees a reward for his invention.
But Tetris fails to stack up
Despite a rather nostalgically fun start, the unheard story behind the battle for rights over Tetris probably works better as a podcast than it does a movie. The story itself is interesting to read about, especially how the chaotic ins and outs of contract disputes escalated between parties. There was so much fighting that the film barely scratches the surface of how it was finally settled in court.
As a movie, this experience becomes a tedious watch. There are numerous scenes involving the Russians bickering over contract details with Rogers, the Maxwells, and Stein. The main negotiator Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Shtefanko) walks between rooms, argues with one person, then moves on to the next person, and argues with them about contract details. Rinse. Repeat.
After the fourth or fifth argument over contract specifics, all the energetic momentum the film built abruptly halts — like losing a game of Tetris. Not to mention, keeping up with all the demands, pleaded amendments, and arguments between all parties can feel overstacked.
Screenwriter Noah Pink does everything he can to make this movie an engaging experience. However, unless you make the dialogue intense and fast like in The Social Network, continuous contract disagreements are mostly tiresome to overhear in real life.
Mustache-twirling villains ripped from Moonraker
The added component that makes this film feel messy is the addition of a threat known as Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov), a high-ranking member of the KGB trying to push the negotiations in his favor. If the research is correct, it does not seem that Trifonov had any dealings with the Tetris debacle.
And if this writer’s research is wrong, the subplot and character itself remain cartoonishly executed. The movie wants to have a James Bond-ish backdrop which is unsurprising, considering Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service) is a producer of the film. But it does so in a method that feels manufactured for the sake of creating higher stakes due to lackluster boardroom discussions.
The Tetris movie fails to assemble excitement
Tetris as a stream is not a complete waste of one’s energy. The film itself is a decent summary of what transpired to bring the addictive video game to Nintendo consumers. However, this film misunderstands its importance for the cinematic medium. Contract fighting between the Soviets and Nintendo sounds good on paper. And perhaps there is untapped potential in the story behind Tetris. Unfortunately, it remains unreached.
My rating for the film:
Tetris releases on Apple TV+ on March 31. Are you planning on watching it? Let us know on Twitter or in the Cosmic Circus Discord. And if you haven’t already, check out our review of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves!