It may be one of the most popular video games in the world, but the story of how Tetris made it from behind the Iron Curtain into the hands of millions around the world has largely flown under the radar. Now, we’re finally getting a look at the 8-bit classic in Tetris, a fresh and fast-paced new feature from Apple TV+ that’s worthy of your time.
Directed by Jon S. Baird from a script by Noah Pink, the new film has all the building blocks of a great story including KGB agents, international intrigue, and unscrupulous businessmen as it follows the story of both the game’s creation and the efforts of Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) to bring it to the masses.
A Dutch-born entrepreneur in Japan, Rogers makes a living running a video games publishing company. Eager to find the next big gaming sensation, Rogers finds Tetris and immediately sees the computer game’s potential for home video game systems and arcades, purchasing the licensing rights for the game. In need of a big sale, Rogers convinces Nintendo that this new puzzle game from the Soviet Union will be a big hit – and they agree. With a big sale on the line, Rogers deal risks falling apart when he discovers he’s not the only one who believes they own the rights to Tetris. The rights for outside of Japan seem to have been purchased by a middleman Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who in turn sold rights to media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle). With each party thinking they possess the rights to Tetris, attention falls on Moscow, where the game was created by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov) in his spare time at Elorg, a Soviet computer science arm of the government. Facing Soviet spies, shady business deals, and the realities of life behind the disintegrating Iron Curtain, the elusive race to secure the rights to Tetris is on.
Tetris is a popcorn spy thriller driven by nostalgia. As ludicrous as the plot sounds, it is largely rooted in reality with Pink adding exciting flourishes here and there. Wildly entertaining, the film crams so many ideas and plot threads into a two-hour runtime that one almost wonders if this story would have been better served as a limited series. There’s plenty of suspension of disbelief required when it comes to portraying what everyday life under the Soviet government was like and perhaps not every Russian is a KGB spy who looks like an extra from Atomic Blonde. Nevertheless, the fast-paced over-the-top nature of Tetris makes the story all the more exciting.
With each chapter and character introduced by 8-bit stylized title cards, Tetris really leans in to video game nostalgia. At times, the light-hearted attempts feel in stark contrast to what amounts to a political spy thriller. It can come off as a bit gimmicky, especially when introducing characters, but eventually falls into a more cohesive rhythm along with Lorne Balfe’s score, reminiscent of 1980s’ video game music.
The success of Tetris squarely rests on Egerton’s performance as Rogers. The actor has time and again proved his on-screen brilliance in roles like Rocketman and Apple TV+’s Blackbird, and he’s a delight in this role too. Giving far more to Rogers than what was likely on paper, the Welsh actor is magnetic as the 1980s yuppie entrepreneur whose luck never seems to run out. He’s a flawed protagonist driven by money but he’s so likeable one can’t help but root for his underdog against the billionaire Maxwell. Rogers budding friendship with programmer Alexy is what gives the story heart and provides Tetris with a necessary bit of humanity amongst the greed.
Pink seems to have taken a page out of the Succession handbook and painted Roger and Kevin Maxwell’s relationship much like Logan and Kendall Roy (and of course, not a single mention of sibling Ghislaine). Painted in such broad strokes, the devilish Maxwells feel less developed than Tetris’ other characters but that ultimately doesn’t harm the story Pink is trying to tell.
Tetris may be a superficial story with as much depth as an 8-bit block, but it is nonetheless entertaining and enthralling. Now excuse me as I go dig my 30-year-old GameBoy out of a closet to stack some blocks.
Following its world premiere at SXSW, Tetris streams on Apple TV+ beginning March 31.