An inorganically convoluted, thoroughly silly, and toneless mess, Tetris – the story of how the famous falling block video game made its way from communist Russia to the rest of the world in the 1980s – has a lot of things wrong with it. Never deciding if it wants to be a paranoid thriller, goofball comedy about a bunch of dunces, or a Moneyball indebted deep dive into the global economics behind the early days of the video game industry, Tetris frustratingly keeps shifting its attitude without giving the viewer a single reason to care about any of the chaos. It’s an unlikeable and hammy take on a story that could’ve been captivating if it chose to focus on the most interesting character caught up in the mayhem.
The main protagonist of Tetris – even though it shouldn’t be – is Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), a Dutch-American ex-pat living with his wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi), and kids in Japan and trying to make a go of things as a computer game publisher. After a string of duds, he’s introduced to the game of Tetris, which has caused quite a stir in Russia among government employees. Desperate to land PC, console, handheld, and arcade rights to Tetris for the company he co-runs with Akemi, Henk is willing to stop at almost nothing, including flying over to take meetings with the game’s developer, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), and his “bosses” with the USSR’s technology bureau. But Henk faces steep competition in the forms of an ultra-wealthy British media magnate (Roger Allam) who’s friends with leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Brit’s go-getter son (Anthony Boyle), and a double-crossing German publisher (Toby Jones) who’s playing all sides. Then again, the Russians might very well keep the whole thing to themselves, even though they seem ill equipped to navigate capitalism. Every time Henk is close to making a deal, the Russian government responds with increasing intimidation, surveillance, and threats.
The biggest problem with Tetris could be solved by simply pivoting away from the thoroughly unlikeable and slimy Henk and towards telling the story from the perspective of Alexey, the man truly caught in the middle with the most to lose. Alexey is a compelling character, wonderfully portrayed by Efremov and deserving of empathy and investment, but he’s hardly ever the focal point and is only ever seen in terms of his relationship to Rogers. Henk and the assorted players trying to land a windfall aren’t nearly as interesting, and director Jon S. Baird (Filth, Stan & Ollie) and first time feature screenwriter Noah Pink lean into an overall sense of greed driven desperation that becomes detrimental the longer Tetris interminably drags on.
Egerton is normally a fine actor, but his portrayal of Henk borders on hammy, with Pink’s atrocious, unsubtle, exposition heavy dialogue not doing him any favours. The deeper Henk gets pulled into dangerous situations that could ruin his life and his company, the less the material gives Egerton to work with. Henk is pitched at the same level throughout: a motor-mouthed, business savvy, flop sweat drenched natural charmer who refuses to take no for an answer. Any attempts to make Henk into a sympathetic character who’s learning a lesson about how to be a better and more ethical businessman fall absolutely flat because no one involved with this can find a way to make this person likeable. There’s plenty of effort being expended throughout Tetris to try and make it happen, but all of it is failing in comparison to the subtler, more genuinely dangerous story Alexey is living through.
The plot of Tetris is too convoluted to let any character develop beyond the broadest of strokes, anyway. If it weren’t for the unnecessarily kinetic and frantic direction from Baird – which most closely resembles a Guy Ritchie movie, and makes sense since this is produced by Matthew Vaughn – Tetris would bore anyone who doesn’t have deep emotional investment in the ins and outs of international rights agreement laws to tears. If the film isn’t taking a breather to talk about how Henk is neglecting his duties as a father (including a “you missed your daughter’s performance” scene, a last refuge for all hackneyed scripts) or the interfamily Succession-light squabbles amongst the Brits, Tetris is nothing more than a series of double crosses that become less credible over time. There are so many scenes in Tetris where people act shocked and aghast that they’ve been screwed over or thwarted yet again that it makes these supposedly smart characters seem implausibly naive at best and dysfunctionally stupid at worst.
And that would be fine if Tetris was an outright comedy, but it’s impossible to tell if that’s what Baird and Pink are going for. The obviously comedic bits are shrill, unfunny, and overacted, but at least the tone would be decipherable if it were consistent on a regular basis. There are moments in Tetris where it’s clear that Baird is trying to imbue the material with a real sense of danger, but the silliness of the humour and the unlikeable nature of the characters constantly undercuts any tension that can be generated. The absolute nadir of Tetris comes when Baird flat out botches what could’ve been an exciting chase scene by employing unnecessarily cutesy 8-bit animations and setting the whole thing to a chiptune-esque cover of “Holding Out for a Hero,” a song that shouldn’t be brought out for an action sequences in “serious” movies unless the film in question has Shrek of Short Circuit in the title. Then again, maybe Tetris isn’t a serious movie. I honestly have no idea what this thing is.
There are only two notes to Tetris, goofy comedy and high tension, and they’re both being played on completely different instruments in completely different locations. Nothing here suggests that anyone is remotely on the same page or that this went ahead with anything close to a unified or fully thought out vision. There have been many films about the business world that have done a fine job of telling a convoluted story about shifting economic sands with equal parts humour and drama. There’s even a great one hitting theatres next week that’s also set in the 80s. Tetris never figures out how to make the pieces fit together, allowing every disjointed element to pile up and crash into one another without success.
Tetris is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, March 31, 2023.
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