In 1989, the Game Boy–Nintendo’s first handheld device–exploded onto the gaming scene. My dad had an original Game Boy, and I spent a lot of time as a kid sitting and playing it before getting my own Game Boy Advance. Tetris, director Jon S. Baird’s new film starring Taron Egerton, traces Nintendo’s attempts to secure the rights to the title game–a game that needs no introduction for anyone who’s spent enough time in arcades.
The film follows the exploits of Henk Rogers, a video game developer who seeks to secure the handheld gaming rights to Tetris for Game Boy. He lives in Japan with his wife, and together they run their own gaming company, Bullet-Proof Software, but he’s looking to expand his reach in the industry. Things aren’t as easy as they seem when Henk realizes there’s been a major mix-up with the Soviet Union, Tetris’s birthplace, regarding who owns the rights to the game. He’ll have to travel to Russia and illegally do business on a tourist VISA if he hopes to secure the rights he desperately wants.
The film takes a little too long to take off, but when it does, it’s a wild chase. Despite the trailer and opening sequence promising whimsy, the film feels traditional in its narrative and most of its cinematographical choices. When securing the rights, there’s lots of back-and-forth red tape with the Soviets that might bore some, but it builds to an absurd final 30 minutes that appear to bend the “Based on a True Story” statement to its limit. If the beginning is to by-the-books, the end offers an unexpected romp, bringing in the Tetris theme music just when needed.
Egerton gives a big, sunny performance as Rogers, an intense extrovert who wants to connect enthusiastically with everyone he comes across. In one scene at an underground party, “The Final Countdown” by Europe comes on, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a man so thrilled about a song. The problem is that it feels like Egerton exists in a different universe than his cast-mates, who (for the most part) give far more grounded performances. This is especially true of Nikita Yefremov, who plays Tetris’s inventor Alexey Pajitnov. The film does an excellent job of giving Alexey a strong backstory and enough drama for Yefremov himself to chew on. Although his scenes with Egerton don’t always feel like they’re on the same plane, the mismatch pays off to create an unlikely pair of heroes trying to get Alexey’s invention into the world.
I admittedly don’t know a sufficient amount about the Soviet Union to comment on its portrayal in Tetris, nor do I know the supposed “true story” behind the game’s invention and spread. Despite feeling that this film plays very fast and loose with history, I still enjoyed it and its narrative choices towards its end. While I wish the beginning were more playful in rendering Henk’s story, I appreciated the film’s respect for gaming as a past-time and essential piece of culture. It made me want to dig out my old copy of Tetris and spend a while trying to fit each piece as they gracefully fell.
Tetris premiered on Apple TV+ on March 31
by Bishop V Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter
Categories: Anything and Everything, Films, Reviews
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