Tetris review – far-fetched but fun video game origin story is an 8-bit Argo
The strange new genre of "corporate biopic" gets off to a decent start thanks to a charmingly optimistic turn from Taron Egerton
The history of video games has made its way to screens before, whether through documentaries like King of Kong or the cult-hit TV show Halt and Catch Fire, but never quite as splashily as in Tetris, Jon S. Baird’s telling of the dramatic origin story of the iconic block-stacking game. Taking in Cold War tensions, corporate conspiracies, and a central bromance, it looks and behaves more like a discount version of Argo than, say, Free Guy or the new Jumanjis, shot through with a love for video games without alienating anyone unfamiliar with the pixelated source material.
Central to this working is the lead character of Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), the Dutch-born, Japan-based American businessman whose infinite optimism fuels the story even as the plotting starts to crumble. Henk, at great financial cost to himself, licenses Tetris at a Las Vegas consumer electronics convention in 1988 with plans to sell it on again to gaming giants Nintendo, before realising that he’s been swindled and needs to deal directly with the USSR to set things right and make his money. Once in Moscow, he is of course overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and corruption of a dying Soviet Union, but also makes a friend for life in original Tetris designer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov).
It’s hardly a story you haven’t seen before – every bugged apartment chat and run-in with KGB goons is deeply familiar – but there’s fun to be had in Henk’s company along the way. To land the deals he did, he clearly needed an infectious charm, and that’s exactly what Egerton brings, doing a fine line in good-natured frustration where raging anger would be the easier, but less interesting choice as the Soviet authorities constantly leave Henk in the lurch.
The best stuff comes in Henk’s growing friendship with Alexey, and Tetris’s one true moment of magic comes in a dinner shared between the two in Alexey’s small Moscow apartment that ends with the pair writing some new code for Tetris to add a touch more style to the game. Their joy in the moment is hard to resist, and it’s this relationship that pays the greatest emotional dividends as the story reaches its climax.
It’s not a hugely satisfying ending, reliant on car chases and airport near-misses that the subjects of the story are happy to admit never happened and prove pretty hard to believe in as a viewer. In some heated moments of action, the world turns 8-bit, a fun and pixelly touch that nevertheless feels like a weaker version of Edgar Wright’s game-y flourishes in Scott Pilgrim.
This is the only bit of showiness that Baird allows himself, and Tetris does lack formal ambition, which is a shame when focusing in a medium as consistently inventive as late-‘80s gaming. Yet, fun character work does mostly make up for this – Egerton brings a lot of charisma and small but enjoyably broad roles for Toby Jones and Roger Allam help to build up this relatively recent yet still rather alien world. With Nike origin story Air due out just next week, we’re currently in a strange zeitgeist of “corporate biopics,” a new-ish genre that Tetris makes a decent if airy case for.
Tetris is released in UK cinemas and streaming on Apple TV+ from 31 March.Where to watch