It is becoming increasingly common to make films based on popular games, and just before Easter Apple released a brand new film based on one of the most popular games of all time: Tetris. However, the film, which goes by the same name as the game, is not quite like most modern adaptations – instead of cooking up a narrative based on the characters and themes from the game, it rather deals with the story of the game.
However, this is no simple documentary, but instead a strange thriller that tells about the rather absurd circumstances connected to the game’s production, publication and much-disputed release. The result has no right to be as entertaining as this.
Based on a true story
The action takes place in several stages, but mainly sticks to 1988 and the run-up to Tetris’ official global launch. As the film begins, the Soviet-made game has already become the talk of the town in Europe, where floppy disks are copied and shared over a low shoe. Recently it has even spread all the way to the USA, and this is where we meet Henk Rogers.
Rogers runs Bullet-Proof Software and has been doing pretty well as a game developer and publisher until he stumbles across a copy of Tetris at a trade show in Las Vegas. He spends barely ten minutes behind the levers, but this is enough for him to become obsessed with the product – he describes the well-known Tetris effect, where you become so engrossed in something that you begin to see it in your dreams. This turns out to be the start of a spectacular hunt for the rights to launch the game outside the USSR.
Rogers bets farm and ground to secure the rights, but not before he faces fierce competition from both the unscrupulous billionaire Robert Maxwell and the KGB itself. In the middle of it all, the Soviet Union is about to collapse, and you really don’t think Nintendo will come to the scene with the mythical handheld console Game Boy.
It’s a relatively intricate premise that takes a while to get going, but after a bit of fumbling in the first half hour, the film elegantly finds its footing when Rogers travels to the heart of Moscow to take up the fight against the superior force. Then, in return, it goes blow by blow all the way to the scrolling text, and there is a surprising amount of tension connected to the central tug-of-war.
The film flirts with several different genres along the way, and manages to be funny, dark and uplifting at the same time. In the end, it nevertheless falls naturally into the thriller category, where it seems to thrive with a consistently high level of tension and very good flow.
Taron Egerton (known from the Rocket Man and Kingsman films) does a solid job as usual in the role of the enterprising Henk Rogers, although the main character is perhaps the character with the least distinct personality in the entire film.
His difficulties at home partially manage to evoke empathy in me, but all in all, this side track feels somewhat contrived, while there is little about Egerton’s acting that makes me tremble on the sofa.
Toby Jones, Anthony Boyle and Roger Allam each do well in their important supporting roles, although the most memorable performances clearly come from the Russian characters. It is particularly fun to see Sofya Lebedeva as the peculiar Sasha, Oleg Stefan as Nikolai Belikov and Igor Grabuzov in the role of the ambitious thug Valentin Trifonov.
The latter in particular impresses repeatedly along the way thanks to his comprehensive presence – he effortlessly manages to sell the impression that this is a man who believes in doing both one and the other to achieve his goals, and that usually makes for good entertainment of.
So we cheated a little
It does get a bit excessive at times, and it is clear that the screenwriters have made up a number of elements along the way to make the action last – the actual Henk Rogers has already admitted this in an interview from earlier this year.
Some of the more spectacular and improbable elements work well to create even more life and stir in the story, while others end up as rather typical Hollywood tricks. Car chases, secret photographs and other forms of scheming certainly underpin the thriller aspect, but somewhat spoil what could otherwise have been left as an even smarter and more unique political drama.
I’m also struggling a bit to buy the relationship between Henk Rogers and Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov. This particular friendship is indeed in line with what happened in reality, but the short period of time and lack of chemistry between the two actors makes it difficult to bite right here.
Otherwise, the film is well directed and staged, with good use of visual effects that help to sell the unique period colour.
Like the game it’s based on, Tetris the Movie is an immersive experience that offers surprising amounts of excitement for as long as it lasts. Solid acting, fine scenography and a particularly good flow help to turn the somewhat crooked rights dispute from the late 80s into an easily digestible and engaging affair.
Unlike the game, however, this is not an experience that stays with the viewer for a very long time, and a number of improbabilities and a slightly convoluted start somewhat spoil the overall impression.
Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that this is a rock-solid film that has managed to turn gray stone into something that bears little resemblance to gold.
Tetris is available to stream on Apple TV+.