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Review: Tetris

One of the greatest video games, and arguably the greatest game ever made, Tetris had a complicated path to becoming a global phenomenon and Apple TV+’s biopic tells an entertaining, if not really factually accurate, take on that story.

Taron Egerton plays Henk Rogers, the founder of Bulletproof Software who discovers the PC version of Tetris at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  Purchasing the rights to video games and arcade machines in Japan, he becomes embroiled in a complicated legal battle between himself, wealthy British publishers Robert and Kevin Maxwell (Roger Allum and Anthony Boyle), and the Soviet government, specifically over the rights to handheld Tetris as Henk gets a sneak peek at the Game Boy from Nintendo.  The actual story of the various legal negotiations and players involved in getting the rights to Tetris sorted out is incredibly fascinating but this movie is definitely not the source for actual, factual information on that story.  A lot of details are highly exaggerated or completely fabricated and most of the characters are over-the-top cartoon characters, including the Maxwells, who are essentially mustache-twirling villains, and the KGB agents who become involved in monitoring Henk and the dealings going on.  If you can ignore the factual inaccuracies, then Tetris is a mostly fun and entertaining movie that plays at times like an espionage thriller or a heist movie as Henk works with and befriends Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) to work around the confusing government machinations of the Soviet Union and his rival software companies.  There isn’t a lot about how Pajitnov actually created Tetris, so if you are looking for some insight into that process, you may be slightly disappointed but there are sources like The Gaming Historian’s video on the creation of Tetris that are worth checking out if you want to find out more, actually fact-based information.  There are beatdowns from KGB agents, car chases, and other events in the movie that almost definitely did not happen but make for some fun beats and it’s also amusing to see the various business and legal manipulations between all the players, including a running joke where the Soviets constantly leave the room in the middle of negotiations or postpone things unexpectedly until the following day.  There’s also a layer of video game-style graphics, like breaking the movie into different “levels” and other flourishes that add some style but there’s a bit of unbalanced use of them as they are heavily used early on but then less so throughout the middle of the movie but then come back fairly jarringly toward the climax.  It reminds me a bit of something you see in stuff like The Toys That Made Us and they were fun but maybe a bit unnecessary.

Taron Egerton is one of the main reasons that Tetris is as entertaining and energetic as it is, as he brings a great mix of charming and manic to Henk Rogers.  Henk risks everything he has on Tetris and he’s willing to do whatever it takes, including getting arrested in the Soviet Union, to save his company and provide for his family.  Egerton commits fully to the role and he’s a charismatic and entertaining core for the movie.  The rest of the cast is at various levels of cartoonish but that adds to the humorous side of the movie, if not what the real-life personas were like.  Roger Allum and Anthony Boyle are ridiculous, pompous buffoons as the chief rivals to the rights to Tetris against Henk and Igor Grabunov as Valentin Trifonov is the ultimate shady KGB agent.  Even characters like Nintendo’s Howard Lincoln (Ben Miles) and Minoru Arikawa (Ken Yamamura) feel extremely exaggerated and over the top compared to their real-life counterparts.  By contrast, Nikita Efremov gives a compelling and dramatic performance as Alexey Pajitnov and definitely garners all the audience’s empathy as the game he created and this legal battle over the rights bring unwanted attention to himself and his family but also brings him into contact with Henk and their budding friendship is one of the sweeter parts of the movie and also has one of the most fun and 80s scenes of the movie where Alexey takes Henk to an underground club where everyone sings along to Europe’s “The Final Countdown”.

Tetris is an entertaining take on the true events of how Tetris found its way to becoming a global icon but most of the movie is definitely highly exaggerated if not completely fictional.  It has a great central performance from Taron Egerton and some fun twists and turns as the various parties negotiate over the Tetris rights and if you go in not expecting to really learn anything, it’s an amusing hybrid of biopic and espionage thriller.

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