'Tetris' review: Espionage thriller highlights crazy evolution of beloved game
Courtesy of Apple TV+
When it seems superheroes can no longer be relied upon for the health of the cinematic landscape, studios are diverting their assets into a different type of IP: corporate branding. From Ben Affleck’s forthcoming movie about Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers, the creation of flaming hot Cheetos, or the invention of Blackberry, there’s a new sheriff in town and it’s called synergy. Enter “Tetris,” a big budgeted, espionage thriller about the topsy-turvy legal (and dangerous) wrangling that went into securing worldwide rights to what became one of the most addictive games on the planet.
Based on a true(ish) story, director Jon S. Baird’s “Tetris” is a-lotta movie crammed into a condensed bundle. It draws inspiration from “The Social Network,” though has the spirit of “Michael Clayton” or “Wall Street” minus a few key ingredients (tighter scripts and bigger stars). “Tetris” gets its point across, unraveling the insane story of how the game migrated from Russia and took the world by storm, in part thanks to its integration with Nintendo’s Game Boy, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t exhausting as its jockeying between several genres and levying corporate speak at the rate of an Aaron Sorkin play. Nevertheless, “Tetris” successfully assimilates viewers into the high stakes world of backdoor negotiations with an endearing Taron Egerton leading the charge.
The “Rocketman” star plays Henk Rogers, a fast-talking software developer knee deep in debt when, at a trade show in the late 1980s, discovers the revolutionary “Tetris” and after remortgaging his home, secures Japanese rights. Through grit and neverending perseverance, he lands at Nintendo staring at an unreleased Game Boy with an offer to put Tetris into every handheld device at launch. Except, there’s one issue, the individual Rogers bought the game from never secured handheld rights. So he has to track them down through a series of snarky CEOs and talking corporate heads, including Robert Stein (Toby Jones), British mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his annoying, entitled brat of a son Kevin (Anthony Boyle). But they never legally secured any worldwide rights either, forcing Henk to hop aboard a plane (without proper visa documentation) and try cutting a deal with the original manufacturers in the Soviet Union.
What ensues is a series of thrilling conversational set pieces as everyone and their sister tries acquiring ownership of the building block empire. Including shady KGB operatives who are secretly pitting the Americans against themselves. It affords plenty of twists and turns as agreements manifest and crumble instantaneously and the filmmakers creatively use 8-bit video game graphics (and sound effects) to convey these moments, yet the suspension of disbelief, not to mention the harrowing logistics involved with securing the game rights, borders on parody. The third act features a wild car chase that feels like a robot wrote it into the screenplay on the off chance it would look cool. Instead, it takes things so over-the-top, you’re left to question if anything that’s come before actually happened.
“Tetris” thrives on Egerton’s winning personality and his ability to keep this wobbly movie glued together. Likewise Allam (who is completely unrecognizable) and Boyle play their roles with enough cartoonish gravatas, they’d be twirling mustaches if given the opportunity. Still, it’s outlandish mechanics notwithstanding, “Tetris” does offer a compelling angle to get audiences on the ground level of high-stakes negotiations, but like the game it's based on, the notoriety eventually wears off, leaving you eager for something else to play.
TETRIS debuts on Apple TV+ Friday, March 31st.