I, like many other millennials, played Tetris as a kid. It’s a simple yet addictive puzzle game; you achieve points by arranging falling blocks to create a line. The backstory behind the production of the hit game, however, is a little more complex. Because it was designed in the 1980s by a Soviet engineer, there were a few hurdles in getting it licensed in the U.S. and beyond. Apple TV+’s Tetris tells that (mostly true) story.
There’s a lot to like in this film, led by Rocketman’s Taron Egerton, including its whimsical onscreen graphics that make you feel as if you’re in a video game. Ultimately, though, the whole thing feels unnecessary.
Director: Jon S. Baird
Release: Apple TV+
‘Tetris’ follows the story of the legal battle to obtain the rights to the game—which sounds better in theory than in execution. The film is strongest when it focuses on the friendship at the heart of the story.
Tetris shows a lot of promise in its early moments. Egerton stars as Henk Rogers, an entrepreneur who discovers Tetris at a trade show, inspiring him to try to obtain the Japanese rights to the game. That leads him on several trips across the globe, eventually stopping at the Soviet Union to meet the game’s designer, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov).
At the film’s premiere at the SXSW film and TV festival, the real-life Rogers and Pajitnov joined the cast members who played them onstage. “We became friends and we’re still friends,” said Pajitnov of him and Rogers.
“Despite it being an extraordinary story about a global phenomenon and a well-recognized brand, it’s really a story about friendship,” Egerton added.
The friendship between the pair—who today co-own The Tetris Company—is the beating heart of the film. They’re portrayed as opposites: Egerton’s Rogers is smooth-talking and charming, while Efremov’s Pajitnov is quiet and reserved. Yet they form an alliance over their love of video games, and you want to root for their success.
The problem with the focus on the Rogers-Pajitnov friendship is that other relationships in the film get pushed to the sidelines. We see and hear from Ayane Nagabuchi, who plays Rogers’ wife Akemi, only a handful of times. And although we see his kids at the beginning of the film, by the end, some of them disappear without explanation.
Most of the action takes place in the Soviet Union and includes some amusing scenes of Rogers in one room while Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who is also trying to obtain the rights to Tetris, is in another room—neither of them aware the other is there. But a few of the Soviet characters feel like caricatures, making the film sillier than it needed to be.
One scene that got strong reactions from the audience was the Nintendo Game Boy reveal scene. Rogers is invited to see the handheld device before its release to the public, and it’s at that moment that he gets the idea for packaging Tetris with the Game Boy (which ultimately happened).
Running on mostly nostalgia, Tetris is playful and at times corny. The story behind obtaining the rights to the game is more interesting in theory than in execution. Like other product movies being released this year, the climax hinges on paperwork being signed. No matter how you dress that up, it’s hard to make that aspect super exciting onscreen.
As for whether the film is factually accurate, screenwriter Noah Pink addressed that at SXSW with a succinct answer: “All of it is emotionally true.”
Tetris streams on Apple TV+ on March 31.