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‘Tetris’ review: You gotta fight for your right to distribute and monetize a classic video game

Espionage? World travel? Political gamesmanship? The Taron Egerton-led ‘Tetris’ seems to have it all.

Courtesy of Apple

Would you believe the 1984 puzzle game Tetris has a political backstory that contains political implications, espionage, and car chases? No, come on – that game? I still try to beat my previous records, thanks to the Nintendo Switch. In the land of ultra-realistic graphics and motion capture, it’s a calming throwback. However, I never really considered (or knew) the story about how contentious the battle was over the intellectual rights of the property. Director Jon S. Baird’s narrative has a lot of colors it looks to combine into an enjoyable and thrilling full feature.

Throughout the entirety of the 1980s story, there are significant specters of communist Russia and the Cold War. Those events in duality command a sense of seriousness when expounded upon. At the same time, Baird and writer Noah Pink also add an uplifting story of entrepreneurship with 8-bit visuals to give the film a playful mix. (this is a video game, after all). While the two foundations make for an entertaining collision at first, but start to wane as Tetris circles and expands on the same beats.

Video game programmer and founder of Bullet-Proof Software Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) is a man you want to root for. Much of this is due to Egerton’s penchant for charm in this role. Bottom line – Rogers needs a hit, and the bank is hesitant to give him another loan. As the opening narration would tell us, a chance walkthrough at an electronics expo in Las Vegas gives him a glimmer of hope. For the first time, he sees Tetris played for the first time. Luckily for him, it’s still a kept secret and potentially explosive worldwide money opportunity. So, he pursues the rights of various regions and even leads him to the hallowed halls of Nintendo.

While there, Henk sees the Game Boy for the first time. If he happens to get ahold of handheld rights and bundle it with (at the time) cutting-edge technology, he and his family will be set for life. But, oh no – it’s not going to be that easy. There’s the question of the Russian government – on the brink of collapse and looking to exhibit a heavy hand in a potential sale. The man who invented Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), stands to make absolutely no profit from it. There’s a moral obligation Henk takes up to make sure that happens. It wouldn’t be the 80s without a shady, unethical capitalistic entity in the form of the father/son duo of Mirrorsoft UK Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and “whatever it takes” son Kevin (Anthony Boyle).

The story has much to work with and can feel overwhelming in some segments. However, the full view tries to settle the landing once Henk enters Russia. As the film says, the country is not particularly fond of foreigners, and the American “can-do” attitude can only take you so far in a hostile environment. Henk quickly finds out his business is not wanted there coming up against a corrupt KGB official named Valentin (Igor Grabuzov).

Once everything is set, Tetris becomes a quantity of double-crosses, negotiations, and backroom deals where you hope to see the good guys win. Just as an added incentive, there’s a small backstory of Henk being so wrapped up in this pursuit; it hurts his family life. Unfortunately, his travels result in missing his daughter’s recital she’s worked so hard on. It adds stakes, but possibly going bankrupt and being thrown in jail is all we needed.

A lot gets said another the political implications that concerned Russia at the time – for some, Tetris personifies one more cash grab before their power is rendered obsolete. The film looks to distinguish itself with outstanding production designs, even if plot themes stack up on one another. Who would have known that Tetris had a huge story to tell?

You can see that it doesn’t shy away from tackling the track of ambition. Even if the blocks don’t stack and shift as neatly as the subject it’s discussing allows.