The story of how one of the world’s most popular video games found its way to players around the globe. Businessman Henk Rogers and Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov join forces in the USSR, risking it all to bring Tetris to the masses.
I learned a great deal watching Jon S. Baird’s “Tetris.” I had no idea the game had been invented in Russia or the lengths tech entrepreneur Henk Rogers went to in order to secure the licensing rights. Far from just hammering out a deal in a corporate conference room, his efforts not only had him flying around the globe but actually putting his life on the line to do so. To be sure, this may seem extreme, but securing this deal became Rogers’ white whale, one that needed to be tracked down not simply to save his livelihood but his pride as well.
Beginning in 1988, Rogers (Taron Egerton) is a man desperate to make a splash in the burgeoning video game industry, his Tokyo -based Bulletproof Software premiering their latest offering at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show. It’s a bomb, but what catches his eye happens to be at the booth next to him. Five minutes after playing the competition’s additive game Tetris, he knows he’s stumbled upon something unique. He manages to get the rights to license the game in Japan, a deal he stands to make millions on, selling the game to Nintendo.
Little does Rogers know that a separate deal was already struck in which the inventor of the game, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), sold the rights to English businessman Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who then cut a deal with multi-media billionaire Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) to produce the game for various formats. His son Kevin (Anthony Boyle) has been put in charge, who promptly informs Rogers that he does not have the rights to the game in China, a venture he’s already leveraged his house and future earnings to broker. Desperate and sensing something wrong, he decides to go to Russia to track down just exactly who owns what. This is when his troubles truly begin.
Playing out like a Cold War thriller, Baird puts the viewer in Rogers’s shoes and immerses us in a bureaucratic nightmare, the depths of which our hero has no conception of. Attempting to navigate the numerous obstacles in his way, he blunders along, assuming that his act of good faith – actually coming to negotiate face-to-face with the game’s inventor – will cast him in a positive light. Unfortunately, his good intentions get him nowhere and not only does he end up putting his own life in danger, but that of his family as well.
There are a great many moving parts to the story and it’s to screenwriter Noah Pink and Baird’s credit that the plot does not end up resembling the labyrinthine situation Rogers finds himself in. Businessmen, KGB agents, Russian bureaucrats, translators and video game technicians speak of video game rights, arcade proprietorship, coding, unit production and contracts while…well, you would think you would need a flowchart to keep it all straight. Rather the complexity of the plot proves invigorating as the unexpected turns it takes throughout are both surprising and devastating.
Our emotional engagement is due in large part to Egerton’s exceptional work. The earnestness he conveys in Rogers is the key to the film. The actor captures an everyman quality in him that has us in his corner, hoping he’ll topple his deep-pocketed competition as well as escape the clutches of the oppressive Russians. His tenacity to make sure all the pieces of the deal fall in the right place is compelling. This emotional hook as well as the ever-mounting tension, brisk pacing and stranger-than-fiction story make “Tetris” as engaging as its namesake.
3 1/2 Stars
It never ceases to amaze me to find that truth is stranger —and oftentimes more entertaining— than fiction. Such is the case with the new Apple TV+ film “Tetris,” starring Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, a gaming software entrepreneur in the 1980’s who stumbled upon what would become the next video addiction, Tetris. This is an origin story like no other and Rogers’ journey is one that takes him behind the Iron Curtain into a world of shady politics and into corporate greed and theft. “Tetris,” whether you’re a fan of the gaming industry or not, is absolutely riveting and thrilling, keeping you on the edge of your seat as the chips begin to fall unexpectedly.
Egerton creates his character of Rogers with finesse. He’s complicated, honest, loyal, and a huge risk-taker. We root for this guy who is willing to sacrifice all that he and his wife have worked for, but the stakes are much higher than most of us would ever consider contemplating let alone doing. Rogers’ innocence and tenacity are evident in everything he does including hopping on a plane for Moscow — something you couldn’t do in 1984 — and finding the creator of this addictive game, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). Their relationship is at the core of the film as two men attempt to bond and discover more similarities than differences. But as their friendship quickly evolves, we are always waiting for the next shoe to drop…and it does.
There are so many working parts in this story that it could be confusing, but thanks to the clear, concise and inventive story-telling style which Noah Pink uses, it’s all crystal clear. This style also allows for the humanity of our lead characters to come through as well. We get to know Rogers and what he stands for. We also see the conditions under which Alexey and his family live, knowing that each moment he interacts with this American is reason for treason and punishment.
Of course, there’s always a villain in this type of story, but we actually have a multitude of them ranging from the criminal Russian politicians to the powers that control this new video gaming world run by Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his twit of a son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle). As the entities begin to collide over the legalities of copyright and rights, the storylines ramp up to the near speed of light leaving you breathless, unsure of how a young man with ethics and morals could possibly fight and win against the big dogs of the corporate world let alone Russian government officials.
Director Jon S. Baird has a strong grip on the reins of “Tetris,” commanding Oscar-worthy performances from his leads and supporting cast. With sharp editing, use of visual effects to help clarify the complicated story, Baird effortlessly tells Pink’s David versus Goliath story.
“Tetris,” an unexpected pleasure of a film, reminds us what movies are supposed to be; a good story told well. But in this case, it’s a crazy story told exceptionally well.