Film Review – Tetris
Going into Tetris (2023), one would assume it would cover its conception, evolution, and eventual popularity around the world. A video game involving small blocks that a player must arrange in certain patterns was a simple concept, but an addicting one. It is considered one of the most famous games ever made. And while the film does cover this ground, it eventually turns into something completely different. In tone, style, and execution, this plays way more like a political thriller. Yes, you read that right. What starts out as a love letter to a classic game becomes a white-knuckle suspense tale involving the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, undercover agents, backroom negotiations, etc. In a way, the game takes a backseat to witness the clash between capitalism and fascism.
But apparently, it really happened. Tetris was invented by Russian scientist Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). Because the USSR was reluctant to allow information to spread to other nations, the rights to the game became entangled in a legal mess. Video game distributors saw the potential for it to be a hit, and thus started a bidding war to pry the game out of USSR ownership. Companies such as Nintendo and Atari were all part of the race. Enter Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a game designer and salesman who took it upon himself to gain the rights for Tetris to be distributed in arcades, computer consoles, and – most importantly – on handheld systems. Rogers was so adamant to achieve this that he – perhaps unwisely – traveled to Moscow, befriended Pajitnov, and tried to convince Russian businessman Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Stefan) to sell him the licensing ahead of any competitors.
On paper, this scenario doesn’t conjure much excitement. Businessmen and sales reps hashing out contracts over profit margins isn’t inherently cinematic. Director John S. Baird and writer Noah Pink structure the narrative with several aesthetic touches to keep things moving. To help organize the multiple layers over Tetris and the legal requirements to obtain it, the production includes 8-bit animated sequences. These inserts render everything to look like an old school video game. Characters, maps, and diagrams are digitally created with blocky colors and shapes. They help make sense of where events are taking place and how each competing company stand in the bidding war. Baird’s direction leans on this style a little too excessively, to the point where the animation and live action photography blend in the latter stages. Visually, these bits are fun, and add a lighthearted mood every time they appear.
The contrast between scenes in and out of the USSR is so dramatic that it feels like we’re watching completely different movies. The cinematography (Alwin H. Küchler) creates a stark differentiation. In America, Japan, or England, the visuals have a bright color palette filled with yellows and oranges. Everything is sunny and vibrant, with light bouncing off surfaces like a glossy sheen. That is not the effect we get once we enter the USSR. All the warm tones get stripped out, leaving environments covered in cold blues, greys, and whites. 1980s Moscow is depicted in dire straits, where food is rationed, and neighbors must knock on doors for a pinch of salt. Baird’s direction creates a heavy atmosphere, where characters are constantly being watched and allies could potentially be enemies in disguise. One wrong decision could get someone thrown in prison. While the story is essentially about a business deal, the rhythm, pacing, and music gives it the sensations of a high-stakes espionage caper. When we get to a highspeed chase with shady Russian agents, we wonder where the line between fact and fiction is drawn.
This mix of different styles – between serious and frothy – is an interesting approach, but also creates a situation where we are not sure if scenes are meant to be taken at face value. One key interaction features Belikov jumping between conference rooms where Rogers, competing distributor Robert Stein (Toby Jones), and Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle) – son of media tycoon Robert (Roger Allam) – are all separated individually. The editing (Colin Goudie, Ben Mills, Martin Walsh) cuts between each room. We follow Belikov as he tries to sus out who has the best offer, who is lying, and who poses a threat to the Russian government. At first, the back and forth creates plenty of tension, almost like a chess game being played out in real life. But as the pacing quickens, the result becomes comical. There’s a kind of screwball impression the faster the scene goes. If one were to overlay the Benny Hill theme during this sequence, it would wash away all the suspense and magnify the laughs.
In the center of the fray is Taron Egerton, who plays Henk Rogers with the headstrong stubbornness that could be considered admirable and foolish simultaneously. Sporting a thick mustache and nervy energy, Egerton gives Rogers an unbending will bred out of entrepreneurism and desperation. He will simply not take “No” for an answer. Rogers travels to Moscow with no plan other than to win the rights to the game. He attaches himself with strangers and forces his way into Belikov’s attention by sheer force. Even after being warned multiple times that he is facing arrest, Rogers continues to push forward. This mindset can be grating if handled incorrectly. Rogers brushes off adversity by simply not recognizing the danger. The narrative tries to counteract this by touching on his family. Rogers’ obsession over work has put a strain on his Japanese wife (Ayane Nagabuchi) and daughter (Kanon Narumi). But that thread doesn’t carry the same significance as his mission to obtain Tetris. When we get surveillance photos of Rogers having secret meetings with persons of interest, he comes across as some sort of super spy. His naivete puts him smack dab in the middle of an international crisis without even realizing it.
There is an absurd quality surrounding Tetris, to the point that the game itself loses its importance. It acts as a macguffin, the thing that everybody wants. But really, the game is a supporting player. In the spotlight is Rogers, Pajitnov, and all the moving parts that went into this particular transaction. This adheres closer to those interested in Cold War history, and the atmosphere of the Soviet Union just prior to its collapse. Gamers and fans of Tetris may come away a little disappointed, as the narrative doesn’t dive too deeply into the allure of the game. We learn that it is great because characters explicitly tell us so. It’s a strange dynamic that the film never fully rectifies. People went through a lot of trouble to bring Tetris to the world. I’m not sure the movie did enough to prove how special it was or whether it was all worth the hassle.