3 out of 5 stars

A film about the rights to the video game Tetris has no right to be this good. When the project was announced, many felt it indicated Hollywood really had run out of ideas, but there’s actually a lot of material to work with here. This stranger-than-fiction tale of one man’s mission to bring Tetris to the people is a surprisingly smart political thriller set against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Tetris centres on Dutch video game designer Henk Rogers (Rocketmans Taron Egerton) in 1988, who, seconds after witnessing a demo of Tetris at a Las Vegas convention, knows he’s seen the future of gaming.

The film’s early sections have far too much exposition and it takes too long to set up the legalities of the contract. A conversation between Henk and a bank manager delves into the banal, despite the best efforts of the director Jon S. Baird (Stan & Ollie) and some 8-bit animation in trying to add sparks to convoluted business proceedings.

Henk has made a home in Tokyo with his patient wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi), who raises their three kids and helps run their fledgling video game company Bullet-Proof Software. Accessing the rights to Tetris becomes his life’s mission, no matter how much time or money it takes. The first step is the British publisher Mirrorsoft, run by Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his sneering son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), then the stakes are raised once Nintendo executives Howard Lincoln (Ben Miles) and Minoru Arakawa (Ken Yamamura) unveil the GameBoy. The real story doesn’t really kick in until Henk gets to the Soviet Union, so it’s a shame it takes so long to get there. The screenplay falls short of explaining why Rogers literally puts his life on the line for some falling pixels.

Hanks ends up in the crosshairs of the Cold War after trying to do business with Tetris’s inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov). Knowing Tetris could bring in a huge income into the USSR, the increasingly corrupt government takes over the business dealings because intellectual property and private ownership don’t exist in their country, so the rights to Tetris are very much up for grabs, no matter how much money’s on the table.

This biopic takes some liberties with the truth and they’re mostly unnecessary. A few elements of the story are clearly exaggerated for dramatic effect whilst others are glossed over. There’s a car chase, for example, that feels like it belongs in a completely different movie. With a two-hour runtime, the dated Bond-style KGB villains and their dastardly schemes could also have been edited down.

The family drama is particularly undercooked. It’s unlikely anyone enjoying the video game biopic aspect, or the Cold War thriller approach, will also care deeply about a child’s recital. Ayane Nagabuchi gives it her best as a business-savvy wife but has nothing to work with. Despite being introduced as a co-partner in the company, Akemi has little else to do than be the generic spouse who warns her husband not to chase the money and think of the family.

Taron Egerton continues to be a reliable leading man who elevates his character to a high level of likability. However, his rivals aren’t given the same dimension of characterisation: the Maxwells are the sneering elite, played like superficial versions of Succession’s Logan and Kendall Roy; Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh) is surprisingly forgettable in the narrative; and the middleman, Robert Stein (scenery-chewing Toby Jones), isn’t explored enough to feel relevant to the story.

Alexey Pajitnov is also sidelined in a tale that should be more about him, although the budding friendship between Henk and Alexey is a highlight as the collaborators bond over their love for the game. Whilst the political thriller aspect of Tetris is hugely entertaining, one can’t help wishing this movie was more about the simple joy of video games and how they bring people from different backgrounds together.

The electronic score by Lorne Balfe makes excellent use of the iconic Tetris theme music, while the soundtrack includes predictable but enjoyable 1980s classics. Baird’s direction mixes an Argo-style corporate thriller with action-enhancing 8-bit animation. The pixellated flourishes are used just enough to feel whimsical, but not enough that it turns into an annoying gimmick.

Tetris ends on a predictable yet unsatisfying note after a long slog. The runtime isn’t helped but the repetitive nature of the script, but it’s nevertheless an eye-opening thriller about the little-known inception of one of the most iconic games in history.

UK USA | 2023 | 118 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

director: Jon S. Baird.
writer: Noah Pink.
starring: Taron Egerton, Toby Jones, Nikita Yefremov, Roger Allam, Anthony Boyle, Togo Igawa, Ken Yamamura & Ben Miles.