‘Tetris’: A heady Cold War thriller about the fight over a video game
For a movie about a video game — especially one as popular and as elegant in its simplicity as “Tetris” — Apple TV Plus’s new docudrama by that name certainly involves a heck of a lot of lawyers, contractual licenses, bankers, accountants, software engineers, business moguls, KGB agents and Communist Party apparatchiks. That’s because “Tetris” isn’t just about “Tetris.”
Rather, this fact-based film set in the 1980s is about the efforts of one man — game designer-turned-entrepreneur Henk Rogers — to secure the publishing rights to the gaming-console version of “Tetris,” a battle involving, at various times, such major and minor corporate players as Nintendo, Sega, Mirrorsoft, Bullet-Proof, Andromeda and Atari. This legalese-larded thriller about corporate and political intrigue doesn’t just get into the weeds. At times, it strays so far into the thicket that it’s more than a little hard to follow, making only minor concessions to narrative comprehension, like the 8-bit graphic airplane hopping from Seattle to Moscow to Japan as the international yarn plays out on-screen.
Directed by Jon S. Baird from a screenplay by Noah Pink, and including among its executive producers “Tetris” creator Alexey Pajitnov, Rogers and his daughter Maya — all of whom are portrayed in the film — “Tetris” refuses to dumb down the complexities of its story, even when, at the climax, Henk (Taron Egerton) and Alexey (Nikita Efremov) are shown speeding through the streets of Moscow in a car, with Soviet goons in hot pursuit.
Such purity of purpose is both the film’s strength and its weakness. At times, “Tetris” plays less like a thriller than a two-hour version of a news magazine show, like “20/20” or “60 Minutes.” When Toby Jones, playing a character in direct competition with Henk for the rights to the game, says “it’s complicated” to describe a meeting he’s just had, he could be talking about the film “Tetris” itself.
Among the other people who want the rights to “Tetris” for themselves is Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), the late British media magnate (and father of Ghislaine Maxwell), an unethical bully in business matters — at least as portrayed here. Robert’s priggish son Kevin (Anthony Boyle) also figures prominently.
But what really complicates things is the fact that the game’s inventor is a lowly employee of a state-run institution with the acronym ELORG, which held a monopoly on the export of computer software, cutting him out of any profits from his own game. Efforts by Alexey’s boss (Oleg Shtefanko) to negotiate with Henk are thwarted every which way he turns, whether by the film’s main villain, a menacing Communist Party official named Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov) or by various other representatives of rival gaming companies.
Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh) even turns up at one point, in a brief cameo.
On a grand scale, “Tetris” offers a window into the looming collapse of the Soviet Union, and from that vantage point, it’s actually pretty fascinating. On the smaller stage, it’s a classically heartwarming underdog story — one that involves backroom wheeling and dealing and an 11th-hour escape from thugs that’s straight out of a Cold War espionage film.
As a critic pal of mine said as we walked out of a recent screening, “If even half of that story is true, it’s amazing.”
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Two and one-half stars. Rated R. At theaters and available on Apple TV Plus. Contains strong language, some brief violence and smoking. 118 minutes.