There are a number of movies based on popular video games, but not necessarily on the story behind how the video game was made and how it became so popular. But if that story is interesting enough and can be elevated with cinematic flair, then why not try it, let the blocks fall where they may, and see if it’s a fit? In the new Apple TV+ movie Tetris, director Jon S. Baird does just that, delivering an energetic, playful thriller about one man’s international adventure to procure the rights to market a game he thinks will change the world.
In 1988, Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) is hawking a lackluster game in Las Vegas when he discovers Tetris and becomes immediately entranced. He plans to distribute the game in Japan, where he lives with his wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi), and their children, who think the game is “brilliant.” In Henk’s pursuit to get the game out into the world, he learns that the rights behind it are a tangled web, presenting a much more complicated issue. Determined to secure handheld rights to the game, he travels against all advice to the Soviet Union hoping to meet Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), the inventor of Tetris, and cut through years of negotiations to walk away with the keys to what he knows will be a global smash, especially with Nintendo preparing to release its new Gameboy device.
It’s not exactly easy to follow the chain of custody regarding these rights, which include computer, video game, console, and handheld, if only because most of the characters don’t quite understand the whole picture either. But that confusion is part of the journey, one that Baird enhances by introducing characters as players and mapping over most of the film’s scenes and settings with a pixelated computer graphic image that fades into a live-action shot. It makes it all feel like an ’80s video game, and there are plenty of clear mustache-twirling villains to root against, even though the plucky hero we’re rooting for, Henk, is the only one with a literal mustache.
Baird is a filmmaker best known for his work Stan and Ollie and Filth, and here he’s able to deliver a popcorn film that focuses on entertaining the audience first and foremost. It bears a number of similarities to Argo in that regard, but it owns and dials up its purposeful exaggerations for dramatic effect by turning its scenes into a video game at times, signaling audiences that things may not have happened this way, but it’s infinitely more fun to imagine that they did. The film has a distinct and alluring beat to it thanks to a superb score from Lorne Balfe and I dug its style as well, from the great costumes and deliberate hairstyles to the way that certain characters walked.
Another reason this film feels so fun is Egerton, who is riding high off praise for Black Bird, and who has undeniable star power. The actor has a certain charm that shines even more beneath his era-appropriate mustache, and though Henk’s decisions don’t always seem intelligent — or safe, like when he goes to the Soviet Union despite being told that much of what he is trying to do is considered illegal there — he’s someone who is set on getting what he wants to build a better life for his family. Thus, Henk is very easy to like, and it’s easy to forgive the fact that we already know how this movie will end, given that even audience members who have never played Tetris (this reviewer included) are familiar with the game and its ongoing popularity.
Sure, knowledge of and history with the game of Tetris will certainly add a warm degree of nostalgia and an extra level of fun to this movie, but either way, this is a film that should be commended for not taking itself too seriously while still remaining committed to energetically telling a good story, one that’s very easy to enjoy, especially from the comfort of your own couch, whatever shape it may be.
Tetris premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and is now streaming on Apple TV+.