“Tetris” is one of those types of movies that’s very enjoyable while watching it but not especially memorable afterward. It’s good but disposable. There are some fun scenes and solid performances, and the story is compelling and mostly well told — even if the seams of the manufactured, heightened drama show multiple times — but if pressed to point to anything particular that stands out about Jon S. Baird’s film, I wouldn’t have much of an answer.
That’s frustrating because Noah Pink’s screenplay is probably one of the best retellings that this corporate intrigue story could ever get. Taron Egerton stars as Henk Rogers, a Dutch/American entrepreneur living in Japan with his wife (Ayane Nagabuchi) and children. Henk believes that the future lies in computers and programming, with video games serving as the best gateway for that, so when he happens to see a demo of “Tetris” and becomes immediately hooked, he knows that it would be just as infectious to others. Unfortunately, the game was made by Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) in the USSR, creating a quagmire of rights issues. Those issues are exacerbated by Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his massive corporation, who believe that they can sell the game worldwide. That is not what the contract was supposed to say, however, and the Soviet Union is keen on protecting its financial interests. This protection takes the form of legal wrangling, contract negotiations and spying from the KGB (whose efforts are headed by an especially menacing agent played by Igor Grabuzov).
It’s possible that none of that sounds particularly enticing. Contract disputes! Corporate intrigue! Regional and international sales and distribution! But Baird is able to create a quick pace with Pink’s script that heightens both the stakes and tension as Henk finds himself a stranger in a strange (and very hostile) land. “Tetris” takes place in the ‘80s, just as the USSR is beginning to crumble and independent states break away. It’s a dicey time for the government, but there’s still lots of anti-West sentiment tied up in all the cloak-and-dagger stuff. The shadowy KGB operatives are perfectly intimidating as they spy on Henk and his movements, all while pressuring Alexey to not conspire with any Westerners. Tied into the fall of the Soviet Union is the fact that so many officials want to make sure they make their money through the government before it all collapses, adding yet another fiscal interest into the “Tetris” fray.
Baird injects some style into “Tetris,” mostly in the form of pixelated interstitials that break up the various phases of the journey. Unfortunately, these happen a lot more frequently in the beginning and are seemingly forgotten about for the bulk of the final act, resulting in an uneven bit of showmanship. Also deserving of praise is Baird’s restraint in using too many cultural signifiers to establish that it’s the 1980s. The era is appropriately captured but never in a way that feels like forceful winking to make sure the audience “gets it.” The aesthetics are cool, especially the throwback technology and programming, but it still feels relatively muted so as not to infringe too much on the very grounded story being told.
Or rather, the mostly grounded story. “Tetris” is based on real events, and there are a lot of stranger-than-fiction elements in Pink’s recounting that end up in the movie. But there are also some facets, especially behind the Iron Curtain and noticeably towards the end of the film, that are clearly heightened for the sake of injecting greater tension in the story. These somewhat ridiculous higher stakes stick out as more incredulous in a plot that mostly revolves around revising paperwork and identifying specific types of rights holders in a given territory.
As dull as that may sound, “Tetris” is an entertaining movie made for adults that isn’t all escapism but rather a clever reflection of boardroom maneuvering and the persistent dream of one man. The performances are all solid (especially Egerton, Efremov and Oleg Shtefanko as a government middleman), the movie never tries to overexplain itself, and there are plenty of funny moments. Though “Tetris” isn’t without its faults, it’s an overall good time, even if the magic fades soon after it’s over.
Starring: Taron Egerton, Nikita Efremov, Toby Jones, Roger Allam, Igor Grabuzov
Director: Jon S. Baird
Tags: drama films, movie reviews, Taron Egerton, Tetris