What’s more fun than playing a video game? How about watching a movie about the legal dispute for the intellectual property rights to a video game? Believe it or not, the story behind classic block-stacking puzzle Tetris is much more exciting than the game itself – full of Soviet spies, shady deals, madcap car chases and one very annoying song.
“This is a work of art…” gasps struggling Dutch businessman Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) after a Vegas conference in the mid ’80s. “It’s the greatest game ever made… I played it for five minutes a week ago and still see falling blocks in my dreams…” Hooked on the dream of making Tetris a household name, Henk bankrupts himself for the rights and starts playing a much more dangerous game against the Soviet politicians reluctant to let a Russian-made gold mine slip into the hands of the West at the height of the Cold War.
Flying to Moscow under false papers and getting embroiled in a lot of legal wrangling with unscrupulous officials, KGB stooges and a local game designer (Nikita Yefremov), Henk quickly finds himself out of his depth. For director Jon S. Baird (Filth, Stan & Ollie) though, it’s a chance to prove just how not-boring a boardroom thriller can really be.
Tetris tells a cracking story, but it suffers from The Big Short effect – the thinking that no mildly complicated script is palatable without throwing every gimmick possible at it. The 2015 stock crash docudrama had Margot Robbie in a bath tub explaining financial jargon. Here, maps are animated in nifty retro graphics. Set pieces become GameBoy cutscenes. The game’s earworm theme song is everywhere, now re-processed into a techno-pop soundtrack (that also sees East and West bonding over a karaoke cover of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’). It’s fun, but it does all slightly get in the way of a story that would probably have stood up fine on its own.
Annoyingly, the script isn’t the only thing rendered in 8-bit either. Egerton is as likeable as ever, but he’s never really given the chance to show us who Henk really is. A few moments of anger (the deal isn’t working!), frustration (the deal might not work!) and ecstasy (the deal might work!) aside, Henk is one cut-out character of many in a film full of stereotypes.
Irish actor Anthony Boyle does a great job as a corporate prince, Oleg Stefan (The Americans) is the most ’80s bad guy in 40 years, and Toby Jones tries really hard to do an accent, while Roger Allam’s fat-suited tycoon Robert Maxwell looks like something out of Spitting Image. Add all the underwritten characters, awkward exposition and flashy animations and it’s clear that Tetris would have made a much better documentary than feature film.
The one thing it definitely does is make you want to play Tetris. Immediately. The first thing everyone will do as soon as the film’s over is pick up their phone and download the game. But who’ll get the money when you pay for it?! If only there was a film to explain it…
- Director: Jon S. Baird
- Starring: Taron Egerton, Toby Jones, Nikita Yefremov
- Release date: March 31 (Apple TV+)