REVIEW: Tetris (2023)

Taron Egerton and Nikita Efremov in “Tetris,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

Directed by Jon S. Baird — Screenplay by Noah Pink.

Jon S. Baird’s Tetris is a biographical thriller about the struggle to acquire the licensing rights to the hugely popular video game Tetris back in the 1980s. The film follows Henk Rogers (played by Taron Egerton), a game developer, who, while advertising another game at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is introduced to a video game known as Tetris, which instantly hooks him. This love-at-first-play-session sets in motion an attempt by Henk to secure the rights to the video game for the purpose of reselling them to Nintendo. However, that is much easier said than done, since it was invented by a Soviet programmer and since he will have to travel to Soviet-era Russia to have any chance of securing the rights, thus putting his life at risk, while another far more wealthy potential buyer is willing to do whatever it takes to get the rights before him. 

I am a little bit late to the party when it comes to this film. It was released on Apple TV+ back in March, but I only just got the chance to check it out. Since I didn’t think it had made any serious waves when it comes to word-of-mouth, I kept my expectations fairly low. However, having now seen it, I can say that this film really surprised me. In a way, even though it maybe hasn’t reached a major viewership yet, it feels like it has still come out at exactly the right moment, with The Last of Us HBO series and the Super Mario Bros. animated movie having initiated a renewed interest in video game adaptations, which was a subgenre that was once considered quite difficult to succeed in. 

Of course, Tetris isn’t an adaptation of the video game (that would be difficult to do, unless, you know, it were a creative animated spin on the straightforward story-less video game). But, even still, what the filmmakers have succeeded in doing with this film is to infuse it with a visual style that complements the energy of its lead actor and which also gives the film a serious and much-needed pep in its step. It needs that, of course, because it is a tough sell to say your film is a 118-minute-long back-and-forth negotiation for the licensing rights to something. This could easily be a quite dull film with too many grey colors and a distinct lack of fun. Jon S. Baird’s film avoids that problem by having made a film with visual panache, which is to say that every once in a while characters and story developments will be introduced via 8-bit graphics that are used quite liberally, for example. I am sure this is something that can make this film seem quite intolerable to the wrong viewer, but, for me, I thought it added just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek tone to a potentially quite dry story. 

The cast also does a lot to buoy up this film. Taron Egerton is a great, entertaining leading man (but it is quite strange — and problematic — that they chose Egerton to play a Dutch person of Indonesian descent), whose insistence and energy in this film make this a film you feel like finishing even when it becomes dangerously close to getting bogged down by Soviet Russia tropes. To add to that, Toby Jones, Anthony Boyle, and Roger Allam’s characters are not portrayed in a dull manner. Where the film misses the mark is in the fact that Henk Rogers’ family situation feels much too underdeveloped.

It should be said that the actual true story behind the acquisition of the licensing rights to Tetris (which, I gather, the film covers somewhat faithfully in broad strokes) is an amazing true story, but the filmmakers have taken the liberty to add in these quite obvious fabrications such as a car chase, a race against time, and things like that. Personally, those fabrications didn’t bother me too much, since the visual style helps to maintain a somewhat breezy tone in spite of its paranoid late Cold War-era story.

Jon S. Baird’s Tetris is not as addictive as the game it borrows its title from — and probably not nearly as rewatchable — but it is an engaging and surprising true-ish story that takes the Bridge of Spies-esque biographical thriller subgenera and throws in video-gamey visual panache, synthy background music, and a charming lead performance that all ultimately help to turn this into something quite energetic. It’s not the type of biographical thriller that’ll end up nabbing Oscars, but it is far more fun to watch than your average biopic.

7.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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