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Now on Apple TV+: 'Tetris' Is an Amped-Up Stranger-than-Fiction Saga that Shoots for the Stars

By Lindsay Traves | Film | March 31, 2023 |

By Lindsay Traves | Film | March 31, 2023 |


There are a lot of ways to make legal dramas interesting. Stuff them into a high stakes courtroom where everyone yells, get fast-talking actors to glibly spit lines set to moody music, or in the case of Tetris, turn the pace all the way up and make it feel like a videogame.

The story of Tetris, the game, is truly a stranger-than-fiction saga of rights, licenses, and international relations. Getting trapped in Soviet Russia and racing the clock against the fall of communism all to bring a block-based game to the masses might seem like an action-packed thrill ride, but it was mostly a lot of contract negotiation and squabbles over terminology. To turn it into an exciting feature, Tetris had to make some magic.

In the movie, Taron Egerton stars as Henk Rogers, the Dutch-American videogame designer who stumbles upon a Russian-created game that he can’t get out of his head. Desperate to save his company, provide for his family, and back a game he truly believes in, Rogers enters into a battle for rights for a product trapped within the walls of late-80s Russia. Wanting to do right by creator, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), Rogers and his integrity shine through in the race for rights involving Sega, Atari, Mirrorsoft, Nintendo, and most everyone with an interest in videogames or the money they generate.

Tetris doesn’t feel anything like other legal-rights-dramas and despite it’s high speed is nothing like The Social Network but shares more in common with The Wolf of Wall Street or maybe Catch Me if You Can. At times, you might squint and think you’re seeing cyberpunk but that’s only because it sometimes sounds like Tron and there’s a lot of 80s neon. There are shades of Silicon Valley in the way joyous code sprints are followed by deals made with shady billionaires who want to exploit someone’s life’s work. But Tetris plays its own tune, literally and figuratively, using surreal videogame inserts as a narrative device, keeping the pace at an eleven, and setting it all to a wicked soundtrack that turns the original Tetris theme into an epic film score (by Lorne Balfe).

Tetris is drenched in the 80s with boxy suits and glam metal. What’s special about its use of dated technology is that it treats 80s tech with reverence, avoiding highlighting how primitive it is by today’s standards. The Gameboy is treated like a game-changing device and an interesting way to highlight how legal language is needed to distinguish between things like arcade rights, console rights, and handheld rights. Using familiar things like the definition of a personal computer (referencing a keyboard and a processor) allows the movie to take the layman through the excruciating world of contract negotiations. Though the speed never lets up, as a result of all the lying, cheating, and stealing, it’s difficult to know the stakes of every interaction and narrative devices like a plane-you-just-need-to-take-off-in-time are used to try and convey the finality of things. It’s all a bit difficult to follow, even with its well-crafted explanations, which can sometimes make it feel like it’s meandering. The real story is a rich enough text, but Tetris sometimes shoves in typical narrative devices to make it easier to digest, for better or for worse.

Egerton’s performance adds so much fun to the story, his exuberant line deliveries keeping everything exciting and forcing you to root for his success. It’s a tale of American audacity in the face of international barriers and his brightness and showmanship keep that all together. His Kirk and Spock relationship with Alexey adds a plucky romance to the story while also showcasing what’s left in the wake of an American view of success.

Tetris, like the story of Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?, seems like a wild Wikipedia article that could have turned into an oral history and then a mini doc, but this movie shot for the stars. By splashing the whole story with vivacious music, story-telling, visual gags, and performances, Tetris amps up a legal drama making it as exciting as clearing four lines at once.

Tetris premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival and will be on Apple TV+ on March 31, 2023