Full disclosure: Sue me but not only have I never played the iconic ’80s video game Tetris, I had never heard of it before encountering this new film Tetris, which world premiered tonight at SXSW and comes from Apple Original Films. I realize that probably makes me a bit of an oddity to the gamer generation, but I can only say my lack of knowledge on this product did not hurt one bit in being wildly entertained by a movie that tells its origin story. In fact it seems to be part of an encouraging but unlikely new genre this young year: movies all about the backstory of well-known products. BlackBerry from IFC and Paramount, Flamin’ Hot from Searchlight, and now Tetris from Apple have been on display this week at SXSW (BlackBerry actually premiered at Berlin), and if you think watching the emergence of a smartphone, a Cheetos brand and a single-player video game is, well, less than compelling, think again.
Having reviewed the former two (BlackBerry here and Flamin’ Hot here) and now this one, I have to think biopics on stuff, rather than people, have a bright future.
Tetris, for those like me who were clueless, turns out to be one of the most popular video games of all time, a puzzle-based one-player game where you have to engineer an endless choice of colored geometric shapes into a single board, fitting them all together. It is the kind of thing that would drive me nuts, but watching the movie about how it all came about is another matter because this one, directed by Jon S. Baird (Stan & Ollie) and written by Noah Pink, is simply riveting, playing more like a Cold War-era international spy thriller rather than a manual for acquiring rights to a Russian video game. Yes, that latter sentence is what makes up the bones of this story, but I guarantee you will be on the edge of your seat, and remarkably it is all true.
It is 1988, Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) is an entrepreneur and owner of Bullet-Proof Software living with his wife Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi — excellent) and daughter Maya in Japan. He is on the search to find a video game that could blow up the market, and at a consumer show in Las Vegas one day he lands on the obscure Tetris and — bingo! — this is it, he thinks. He manages to get Japanese rights to the game but it turns out they don’t exist. A little more research sends him to Russia, where he must negotiate with Cold War corporate entities because this is where the game is a big hit, a homebred success dreamed up by an average working guy who killed time by developing it and then watching it catch on with his co-workers and then the country, while it remained little known beyond the Iron Curtain.
Henk meets the man himself, Alexey Pajitnov (a superb Nikita Efremov), an unassuming guy completely the opposite of the aggressive pitbull Henk, but eventually he wins him over. However, in a wild confluence of events, rivals converge on Moscow at the exact same time. These include Robert Stein (Toby Jones, great as usual) who thinks he has a couple of deals, but turns out they are shaky including one with Mirrorsoft UK owned by none other than flamboyant newspaper magnate and billionaire Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), who is also on the scent of Tetris along with his buttoned-up son Kevin (Anthony Boyle). His motivations are sketchy as we will soon find out.
Working with an interpreter, Sasha (Sofia Lebedeva), Henk finds himself caught up in a cat-and-mouse game to land rights, one that also involves Nintendo which is about to launch its Game Boy, a key destination for a game like Tetris. Mixed up in all this are the Russians themselves including a devious KGB agent Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov) who senses the end of the Soviet Union and sees a key opportunity for himself here before the breakup. There is also Oleg Shtefanko aka Stefan as Belikov, who works for the ELORG Agency and becomes a key player for Rogers in all this. Even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh) turns up for part of this crazy quilt of players.
What Baird and Pink are clearly most interested in though is the politics and intrigue, the unknown secrets behind the making of what would eventually turn into a worldwide phenomenon, as well as the relationship and friendship behind the man who created it and the man who would bring it to the world. Egerton again has found a great role and nails it. Henk Rogers is a relentless, never-say-die salesman and believer in himself against all odds — and let me tell you those odds do pile up. Allam, under heavy prosthetics in a fat suit, plays Maxwell to the hilt, but the entire cast is terrific here in a movie that kept me on edge more than any Bourne flick could ever do.
Shout-out to production designer Dan Taylor who had to re-create Russia, Japan, England and more all in Scotland, which effectively doubles for everything. Producers are Matthew Vaughn (who has now worked with Egerton on numerous films from Kingsman to Rocketman), Gillian Berrie, Claudia Vaughn, Len Blavatnik and Gregor Cameron.
This is a must-see. It even is enough to make me want to play the game. Apple TV+ begins streaming it on March 31.
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Noah Pink
Cast: Taron Egerton, Nikita Efremov, Roger Allam, Toby Jones, Anthony Boyle, Sofia Lebedeva, Oleg Shtefanko, Igor Grabuzov
Distributor: Apple Original Films
Running time: 1 hr 58 min