A film review by Craig J. Koban April 11, 2023


2023, R, 120 mins.

Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers  /  Nikita Efremov as Alexey Pajitnov  /  Sofia Lebedeva as Sasha  /  Anthony Boyle as Kevin Maxwell  /  Ben Miles as Howard Lincoln  /  Ken Yamamura as Minoru Arakawa  /  Igor Grabuzov as Valentin Trifonov  /  Toby Jones as Robert Stein  /  Rick Yune as Larry

Directed by Jon S. Baird  /  Written by Noah Pink




I know people that would never profess to be a gamer or know anything much about the larger gaming industry, but these same people have undoubtedly heard of and/or played Tetris.  

It's a puzzle game of stark and addictive simplicity, one that can easily be picked up and started by seemingly anyone of any age group.  Created by software engineer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, the game began from the humblest of beginnings before it took the larger world by storm.  By the early 2010s, Tetris had sold approximately 70 million physical units and over 100 million digital downloads, making it one of the most successful video games of all time.  It was also famously packaged along with the Nintendo Gameboy when it launched, which helped propel that handheld device to legendary status in the annals of gaming history.  Overall, Tetris has been ported to over 65 different platforms, which is a Guinness world record that stands to this day.   

But...how did it achieve such meteoric success?  How did it become such an omnipresent facet of popular culture at large?  And what happened to Pajitnov himself?     

The new AppleTV+ film TETRIS attempts to answer many of those - and more - questions about this game's beginnings, its ascension in the gaming world, and the litany of legal conflicts surrounding the rights to the game's distribution and inevitable release outside of Russia, which was more than a bit complicated by American investors and companies trying to do business within Cold War era Russia.  In many respects, TETRIS is a real three for the price of one movie: It's a chronicle of an insanely popular game's origins, an expose of the various business power players that wanted a piece of its action, and a Cold War political and legal thriller.  For those mostly unfamiliar with how this 8-bit gaming icon came to be (and via some extremely tough and frankly dangerous negotiations between various people in the U.S. and Russia), TETRIS will prove to be a fairly engrossing fact based effort.  To say that it sometimes seems to embellish a fair share of its historical elements would be a bit of an understatement, not to mention that the labyrinthine maneuvering and contractual battles that erupted over this game may be too convoluted to take in on one viewing (and perhaps would have benefited from a long-form documentary).  Having said that, TETRIS makes up for its deficiencies on a level of being well oiled and offering solid entertainment value, which is held all together by the wonderful everyman charm that star Taron Egerton brings to the table.

The KINGSMAN and ROCKETMAN actor plays Henk Rogers, who, in the late 1980s, is the founder of a company called Bullet-Proof Software and, during a fateful day at a Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show, catches a glimpse of Tetris for the first time.  Initially frustrated that one of his paid models has abandoned presenting his fairly uninspired game at his booth, he discovers her obsessing over Tetris at a rival's table.  When Henk gets his mitts on the controls and gives the game a whirl, he has an immediate epiphany that this game will not only be huge, but change the world over.  Living in Japan with his wife and kids, Henk is in desperate need for a huge financial win for his family and struggling company, so he makes it his mission in life to find out where this game originated and who has the rights to it.  Realizing the vast potential that this game has outside of the Iron Curtain (but one that has yet to make it outside of it beyond Tokyo), Henk decides to make a power play for the Japanese rights to the game, scoring a powerful ally in Nintendo's high ranking brass themselves.  Things are looking up for him when he thinks he gains control of the game.   



Poor Henk soon realizes that the Tetris rights are not as legally clear cut and easy to decipher as he and Nintendo thought.  Multiple other parties are trying to nab the game all for themselves, like Robert Stein (Toby Jones) a rival software salesman that apparently has secured the rights to the game, not to mention the leaders of Mirrorsoft, headed up by the unscrupulous Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his son and second in command, Kevin (Anthony Boyle), who think they have all but completely nabbed Tetris for themselves.  Understanding that a serious Hail Mary counter-move is going to be required on his part, Henk makes a bold - and frankly hazardous - trip to Russia, where he seeks out the game's inventor in Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), but getting into the U.S.S.R. and trying to conduct business there is not an easy task at all.  It's illegal for a westerner to do business there with Russian companies without government permission.  Complicating things is that actually getting close to Alexey is an near impossible task because of his employer's tight rule over their employees.  The company that Alexey works for, ELORG, has a tough-minded rep, Belikov (Oleg Shtefanko), that makes Henk's negotiations an even greater Herculean task.  Henk is also under the constant threat of being discovered by KGB agents and thrown in jail, which is a fate almost worse than losing Tetris and going bankrupt.

TETRIS' pacing in the early stages is fantastic, as director Jon S. Baird  and screenwriter Noah Pink are able to juggle a remarkable amount of character introductions and backstories and thrust them upon viewers with a real splashy economy and breakneck pacing.  We first meet Henk in 1988 Las Vegas experiencing his meet-cute, so to speak, with that Tetris demo (his game, by comparison, at the show is a dog with fleas that fails to capture any of the attendees' attention).  Then we have to learn of his family life and shaky company that he and his wife are trying to keep alive and well.  Then the film has to jump back a few years to introduce us to Alexey coming up with Tetris using basic coding on what's now considered rudimentary and archaic computers.  Then we learn of Stein making a play for the game a couple of years after that, and then finally with the top brass of Mirrorsoft one year later, during which time they knew that this game is a license to print money, but securing it for world distribution is another matter altogether.  The film finally rebounds back to the present (1988) with Henk and his business intentions with the game, which unavoidably comes to a head with all of the aforementioned players.  Obviously, there's a metric ton of expository information that's being dealt out very early on in TETRIS, but Baird makes it all lively, especially with the manner he uses quaint 8-bit gamer art and animated transitions to navigate viewers through this onslaught of information.   

TETRIS really hits its stride when Henk finds himself journeying right smack dab into the lion's den of Moscow, and it's surprising how legitimately suspenseful the film becomes during these stages.  The overall story is not just about understanding how a once small and unassuming game became a juggernaut, but also in showing just how much guys like Henk put on the line to do business in the most anti-capitalist place beyond the states.  Henk has to essentially tip-toe through every facet of acclimating to Russian life.  He can't declare himself there on business, so he falsely confesses to the authorities upon landing that he's there for pleasure.  Exacerbating this lie (which could easily put him in Russian prison if discovered) is that Henk doesn't know any of the customs or language of this nation and is essentially flying by the seat of his pants.  Hell, even when he makes multiple attempts to befriend Alexey (both seem to hit it off, especially over their mutual giddy love of coding), the latter has to avoid getting too close so he doesn't jeopardize his own livelihood.  It's important to note that TETRIS doesn't make Henk a simplistic and righteous crusader at all throughout the film.  He's courageous in the sense of what he's risking doing clandestine business in a nation and a time when doing just that would be a death sentence for him, but Henk is sometimes naively blindsided by the inordinate number of thorny complications that come his way throughout.  Egerton gives a thankless performance as Henk here; he has to play the role with an odd combination of unwavering determination, easy going charisma, and, yes, wide-eyed befuddlement (and some would easily say short-sighted stupidity).  

There's also an unmistakable timeliness about making a film so deeply cemented in the ugly realities of Cold War Russia, not to mention that the fairly unsavory business practices of some ultra-greedy corporations don't paint capitalism and the ravenous gluttony of the upper one per cent in a positive light either.  It would be easy to make the Ruskies here the large one-note villain in TETRIS, but the film finds a remarkable amount of empathy with Alexey himself, who's seriously caught between a rather large rock and a hard place here (we do learn at the end of the film that he moved to the U.S. in 1991 and then started the Tetris Company with Henk himself five years later, but before this time the Russian programmer didn't receive a single cent of royalties for the game, which is shocking in itself).  The real baddies of TETRIS might be big business itself in the decade of pure greed, and watching the Maxwells (for example) willing to screw over anyone and everyone (including their own employee's pension funds) to cash in on a future cultural phenom shows a decidedly darker underbelly to a simple brick laying game.  It also underscores what a frankly crazy amount of behind the scenes negotiations and geo-political intrigue that typified this game before being unleashed on the world.  Not everything in TETRIS works.  Some may feel - after its decent opening sections - that the story and all of its personas requires a road map to help audiences connect the complicated dots and make sense of all of it.  That, and I feel that much of what actually transpired here was either truncated, changed, or omitted for a cozy feature film running time of under two hours.     

Still, TETRIS is an undeniably enjoyable and illuminating tale of the simple beginnings and later complex wheeling and dealing behind making a modest game a bona fide classic.  It's not a deep and penetrating film, to be sure, but...brick for brick...the film's a fairly good time, kind of like the game that inspired it.  

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