SXSW: Not all the pieces fit together in this AppleTV+ comedy-drama that’s more “social media” than “Super Mario Bros.”
No, no, it’s not a movie as the titular video game is a movie in regards to the titular video game. Tetris? The Tetris game of the 80s? This gets an entire movie about its creation? Wouldn’t the blocks falling from above be more dramatic? Well, actually… the creation, discovery and licensing of Tetris is a bit crazy (first clue: it was made by a Soviet software engineer long before the collapse of the Soviet Union). But, spoiler alert: it’s not wild enough to spawn an often oddly straightforward historical comedy-drama dedicated to its legend.
But damn it if director Jon S. Baird and star Taron Egerton don’t do their best to piece these disparate pieces together (sorry) into a cohesive story. If nothing else, you’ll walk away from “Tetris” knowing so much more about the game and the many (dare we say, too many) people who fought for the opportunity to bring it to the masses. (Fans of complex stories about the ins and outs of IP licensing, hello! This thing is all for you, plus 8-bit animated graphics.)
That’s not to say “Tetris” isn’t fun. Baird deploys said 8-bit animated graphics from the movie’s opening (introducing our key characters as “players”) to a slew of map-travel moments that range from Seattle to Tokyo to Moscow and back (and on and on and on). Again) . But there’s a lot of meat on that bone, certainly a lot more than most people would expect for a movie, again, about a blocky video game. Noah Pink’s screenplay struggles to distill it all down while keeping the whole effort moving.
Wisely, Pink turned to Dutch video game designer and publisher Henk Rogers (still working to this day), who stumbled upon Tetris at the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and was immediately smitten. For Henk (Taron Egerton), it’s “the perfect game” and when he grabs the video game and arcade rights (in Japan only, one of the many complex contract disputes that “Tetris” will plunge into deeply), he sees nothing but a golden future for himself and his beloved game. Oh Heck!
Henk offers the actor a platter of polished combinations that suit his charms: part biopic, part spy thriller, all grounded in his cowboy-style charm. Henk is a nice guy, kind of a hustler, a big dreamer, and when he buys the rights to Tetris, he hopes it will help him build the life he wants for his family (including his wife and partner Akemi, played by Japanese star Ayane). Too bad for all those other guys, who also own the rights to Tetris.
Time for History: Tetris was created by a Soviet government employee named Alexey Pajitnov (played in the film by Russian star Nikita Efremov, who looks distractingly like “Point Break” remake star Luke Bracey). It was such a lo-fi hit with his compatriots – this thing was shared on floppy disks – that when Andromeda Software head Robert Stein (Toby Jones, doing a lot with a little) came to sniff, Russia let him license. And then he allowed it to ultimately disgraced media moguls Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle). And then Henk thought he had the permit.
It doesn’t really matter. All of these ins and outs will be covered throughout “Tetris,” especially during an extremely long mid-period that mostly takes place in some of the most depressing Soviet-era boardrooms you’ve ever seen. Everything you need to know: Henk, desperate to lock in the rights to Tetris (especially handheld ones, once he gets a feel for Nintendo’s plans for his game-changing Game Boy), heads to Russia to negotiate with officials. directly.
It’s going as well as could reasonably be expected. The KGB gets involved. There are countless scenes from English translated into Russian and vice versa. Every phone is tapped. Gorbachev shows up! Somewhere there is a portmanteau that describes the movie as a combo of “Super Mario Bros.” and “Argo” – “Super M-Argo Bros.” ? — in the climax, our heroes pass through an airport to escape Moscow on an international flight that takes just a little too long to take off. It’s a biting moment that looks awfully like Ben Affleck’s thriller, probably by design.
It’s both too much and too little (let’s not even get into the subplot about Henk missing his daughter Maya’s school recital, a trope so overused it almost withdraws into it -even), but it’s a wacky piece of history that’s entertaining in fits and starts. No, not all the pieces fit together, and it certainly doesn’t speed up as the game progresses (something it might have done well to emulate from the game itself) , but there are players worth rooting for and a story that keeps leveling up. It won’t stick in your brain like the game (which doesn’t always see those little blocks still floating down?), but what else could he?
“Tetris” premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. It will begin streaming on AppleTV+ on Friday, March 31.