Review: “Tetris” just makes you want to play Tetris

It’s fun to see what happens when a character plays Tetris for the first time in the new movie “Tetris.” Two young girls testing the game at home fall into a kind of muffled trance. Hiroshi Yamauchi (Togo Igawa), the famous poker-faced president of Nintendo, puts down his joystick and declares it “not bad” (kudos). And Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a mega-ambitious video game entrepreneur who spies on an early demo at a 1988 Vegas consumer electronics trade show, is so mesmerized by these flipping, falling square pieces that they end up haunting his dreams. Maybe you are referring to that. As I watched character after character fall under the spell of Tetris, I certainly wanted nothing more than to throw everything aside—“Tetris” included—and play the game for a few turns myself.

Since then I’ve done just that, and I’ll probably do a few more once I’ve finished my review and given up my obligations to contemplate this semi-entertaining, oddly underwhelming film. Don’t get me wrong, the disappointment of Tetris isn’t that it fails to replicate the joys of a brilliantly simple, insanely addictive puzzler. It’s more that the film seems at a loss as to how to play its own material. Exploring Tetris’ intricate Soviet-era origins, it attempts, with only limited success, to condense a series of disparate, fast-moving parts into a pleasingly coherent form. The mix of studious comic hyperbole, affectionate ’80s nostalgia trip, and somber mid-perestroika history lesson never comes together.

Skillfully directed by Jon S. Baird (“Stan and Ollie”) from a grueling, backwards script by Noah Pink, “Tetris” doesn’t focus on how the game was invented – in 1984 by a brilliant Soviet mathematician and computer genius Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) – but rather how it emerged from behind the Iron Curtain and into eager hands around the world. The result is a Cold War-era sort of Cinderella tale for arcade junkies, in which Tetris finds an unlikely Prince Charming in Nintendo (and specifically Nintendo’s hugely successful Game Boy handheld console) and becomes an unwitting harbinger of Soviet defeat , leading Henk and other proud beneficiaries to live capitalistically forever.

Togo Igawa, from left, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton in “Tetris.”


Henk is the eager-to-please hero of this eager-to-please film, and Egerton plays him with a neat corporate bedside manner, an eager beaver mustache, and enough warm, sociable energy to get your double perception at his Description almost to neutralize itself as being of partial Indonesian descent. Egerton is a strong, hardworking actor (see: “Rocketman,” the “Kingsman” films), but this particular suspension of disbelief — perhaps too polite a euphemism for a case of standard-issue Hollywood euphemism — is difficult to pull off in a story , in which cultural peculiarities are not exactly irrelevant.

At the same time, Henk’s ability to blur cultural and geographic boundaries is both a hallmark of his ambition and a key factor in his success. Born in the Netherlands and raised in America, he lives in Tokyo with three cute children and an overly patient wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi), who holds the fort at home and at their fledgling video game company, Bullet-Proof Software. Drowning in debt but convinced (rightfully) that Tetris is a gold mine, Henk sets out to secure Japanese rights to a variety of formats (video game, PC, arcade). On this mission, he is absurdly lucky at times, but also faces frustrating rebuffs, mostly from British publisher Mirrorsoft, led by the obnoxious billionaire father-son duo Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam, sneering One-Note) and Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle, thoroughly punchable).

But Henk’s calculations shift and the stakes escalate when Nintendo execs Howard Lincoln (Ben Miles) and Minoru Arakawa (Ken Yamamura) quietly unveil the first Game Boy – a “game over” moment that marks the film’s greatest, purest nostalgia hit gives . The result so far is certain, but the way there is long and complicated – for Henk as well as for the audience. Things get particularly messy once it becomes clear that – since things like intellectual property and private property don’t exist in the Soviet Union, but deception and competition do – the rights to Tetris, which have been prematurely claimed by various companies, including Mirrorsoft, are still very much up for grabs.

To unravel this infernal web, Henk travels to Moscow, where he falls down a rabbit hole of misinformation and manipulation, political unrest and legitimate paranoia. He loses himself in the city’s cool, functional spaces and menacing shadows, which create an atmospheric contrast to the glass-walled London offices and warmer Tokyo interiors of Daniel Taylor’s eclectic production design. Henk’s Russian arc also introduces by far the film’s most compelling characters, including the seedy boss of the state-controlled software company ELORG (a nuanced Oleg Stefan), a suspiciously cute interpreter (Sofia Lebedeva) and, best of all, Alexey herself. Alexey, author and Main victim of this whole cloud of dust, must stand by and watch as his brilliant creation is blown up into an emblem of the struggle between East and West, but also reduced to Cold War spoils – a price that will be at the expense of the smaller, greedier minds argued

Two men in the front seat of a car with a woman in the back seat.

Taron Egerton, left, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov take a spin in Tetris.


The film doesn’t highlight this problem as much as it exacerbates it. While its focus on cloak-and-dagger antics and he-said-he-said negotiations has obvious antecedents to a trial film, “Tetris” falls short of the genuinely sizzling tension of “Argo” and the invigorating boardroom cynicism of The Social Network” – or, to be honest, an average episode of “Succession”. Henk, like many established film heroes, gets a little blown away, but is mostly flattered and sentimental (a subplot involving his bereaved family is unspeakably tiring). His rivals, meanwhile, rarely get beyond giggling caricatures, whether it’s Robert Maxwell, who at one point tries to exploit his friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev himself (Matthew Marsh), or a wily middleman, Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who’s always scheming to cut his larger ones , more powerful players.

And they’re all presented as players in an elaborate game-recognition-game metaphor: the main characters are given old-school avatars, and the film’s many international locations are delineated with primitive video graphics. Those visual touches are beautifully impressive, but when Henk finds himself in a chase through the streets of Moscow enhanced with exploding 8-bit graphics that suggest an unusually boring and buggy Super Mario Kart prototype, it’s hard to put down not feeling the desperation of the filmmakers. It’s as if they tried too late to reconnect “Tetris” with Tetris, introducing stylistic connecting points that transcend composer Lorne Balfe’s playful variations on the game’s catchy as hell music.

It’s revealing that “Tetris” only comes to life when Tetris himself takes center stage, never more so than in a touching scene in which Henk and Alexey, future friends and collaborators, spend some time reminiscing on the original , outdated version of the game . You see the beginnings of a tech bromance for the ages; You might also not be wondering for the first time why Alexey keeps getting sidelined in his story. As you watch him reshape lines of code with amazing dexterity, you finally feel a rush of artistic and intellectual excitement, a genuine joy in the creation – and perfection – of something of lasting value. “I had forgotten how much fun it is,” Henk marvels from the sidelines. You will know what he means.


In English and Russian with English subtitles
Evaluation: R, for language
Duration: 1 hour 58 minutes
Play: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Downtown Los Angeles; available March 31st on Apple+

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