Tetris isn’t the best paced film, but when it manages to maintain its high stakes momentum it’s as intense as playing the original puzzle game.
Anyone who’s gotten into gaming usually began by getting their feet wet through classics such as Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man, or the infamous puzzle game titled Tetris. For those who’ve played the latter, the nerve-wracking sensation of racing against time to complete a pattern using colorful shapes – while listening to a catchy, yet stressful melody in the background – is far too familiar. Although fun, these gaming sessions tend to end in frustration, but despite this, we keep coming back because the game is simply that addicting.
In a market where most studios, TV networks, and streaming services are looking for ways to make video game adaptations a hit, there sure aren’t as many “making-of” biopics dedicated to that side of the entertainment industry. What better way to change that than by making a biopic on one of the most successful video games ever made? That is what Tetris is all about.
Tetris opens in 1988 as salesman Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton, Black Bird) finds the classic game and proceeds to put his family, marriage, and house on the line to secure the licensing rights to Tetris. To do so, he travels to the Soviet Union during the Cold War-era, where he joins forces with inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov, Gold Diggers) to bring the game to the masses. Our unlikely heroes are forced to deal with double-crossing corporate businessmen and politicians, who want a piece of the profits, placing their very lives at risk.
Early on, it’s made clear that the movie isn’t particularly interested in how the iconic video game came to be. Instead, we see how it was discovered, packaged, and distributed to the average consumer. The film is smart enough not to waste time in any setup and jumps straight to the moment Henk comes across Tetris, as we’re presented to a montage that establishes his immediate obsession with the game.
On paper, the premise of a Tetris business drama may not sound very engaging. If anything, it might alienate viewers and disencourage them from watching the movie to begin with. Tetris’ secret weapon, though, is Taron Egerton and the energy he brings to the screen. Egerton is one of those actors who never fails to amaze. He pours a great deal of charisma into each and every single one of his roles, and it is no different here.
Tetris has the complicated task of making conversations regarding business contracts and money seem interesting. In that sense, the movie borrows from the likes of The Big Short or Succession. Though it never reaches the highs of those projects, the film comes alive through Noah Pink’s sharp dialogue. It’s Taron Egerton’s expressive body language and fast-paced line delivery that sells Pink’s script and makes you understand Henk’s desperation for success after his own video games have failed to take off. If it weren’t for Egerton, the movie’s writing would simply fall flat.
Other than relying on its leading star, director Jon S. Baird does attempt to add flair to his biopic by including creative transition shots that pay homage to Tetris’ pixelated aesthetic. They are gimmicky, but in a fun way that inject style to the film. Baird also tries to replicate the nerve-wrecking sensation of playing the puzzle game via the film’s quick-cutting editing.
When Egerton is there to drive the scenes, the technique works, but when he isn’t present the editing tends to be distracting and can make Tetris feel like it’s going way too fast, or dragging down. The efforts to recreate the original game’s stressful tone is worth applauding, though, because when it’s effective it actually elevates the performances and Noah Pink’s script.
Another technical feat that is a bit uneven is the movie’s cinematography. Alwin H. Küchler delivers some solid visuals, particularly during the indoor negotiation scenes where he has to focus on more than one character at once. His camerawork in these moments act as a window into the characters’ thoughts, building tension in the process.
Unfortunately, for some reason, when we follow our leads outdoors the visuals take a dip in quality. Perhaps this is due to budgetary reasons, or filming location limitations, but it becomes very obvious the cast is standing on some kind of green screen. It does not destroy the film by any means, but it is noticeable enough to take viewers out of the movie for a couple of seconds. This is especially tragic when it happens during chase sequences that are supposed to have audiences at the edge of their seats.
With that out of the way, let’s turn back around to the film’s cast. Tetris’ biggest advantage is that you can feel everyone working on the movie was having a good time. There are characters that come across as cartoonish villains, such as the Russian politicians, or the businessmen competing for the rights to the iconic puzzle game. Sofya Lebedeva (Vikings: Valhalla), who’s initially presented as an English translator for Henk, starts off as an innocent woman afraid of her own government, only to become patriotic to her country and ruthless out of the blue. This is one example of several, where characters go through change offscreen, making personal motivations jarring to keep track of.
It ain’t all bad, though. The cartoonish sensitivity to certain characters tends to be more entertaining than not. Besides, when Tetris needs to be emotionally moving it takes its time to do so. Nikita Efremov’s portrayal of Alexey is quite restrained because of his living conditions and relationship to the Soviet Union as the inventor of the video game. When Alexey needs to get out of his shell and express more complex emotions, Efremov does it quite naturally. His chemistry with Taron Egerton certainly helps his performance standout.
Tetris will most likely not end in anybody’s personal top favorite films of 2023. That said, it still delivers a good time with some promising tension and a soundtrack that’s as fun to listen to as the tracks from Tetris itself. Taron Egerton solidifies himself as a star, Toby Jones (The Pale Blue Eye) turns in a colorful supporting role, Oleg Stefan (The Americans) makes negotiation sequences thrilling, and Nikita Efremov adds heart to the movie. It’s got lots of ups and downs, but they shouldn’t prevent you from getting invested in this business story of Tetris.
Tetris will be streaming on Apple TV+ from March 31, 2023.