“Tetris” is a video game that’s simple and, in its way, quite beautiful.
People around the world know this, as the Russian puzzler requiring the increasingly quick arrangement of differently shaped four-block pieces that fall from the top of the screen has sold millions and millions of copies over a few decades.
The new film “Tetris” — landing on Apple TV+ this week after debuting in March at the SXSW Film Festival — is, by stark contrast, complex and messy.
Infused with a good bit of fiction meant to spice it up, the cinematic “Tetris” tells the true tale of the hectic battle to secure the rights to sell the game in various countries and via different types of platforms, perhaps most importantly handheld gaming systems.
Directed by Jon S. Baird and penned by Noah Pink, “Tetris” stars Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, a struggling video game developer who encountered “Tetris” at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in the 1980s.
In the film, the Dutch-born, American-raised Henk is immediately taken by the game and is sure securing the rights to tell it in even one major market — Japan — would mean great things for the life he shares with his wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi), and their daughter, Maya (Kanon Narumi), in Tokyo.
Over the course of the film, that goal proves to be exceedingly difficult, with Henk working to outflank competitors such as British software company Mirrorsoft — led by the father-and-son tandem of Robert (Roger Allam) and Kevin “Call me ‘Mr. Maxwell’” Maxwell — and Robert Stein, a British newspaper magnate who had been working to acquire such rights to sell to Mirrorsoft.
And then there’s the fictional Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov), a KGB agent playing his own game, the aim of which is to cash in on a big transaction as, he believes, the Soviet Union is in its end-of-life stage.
One person in the Communist country not set to profit from future sales of “Tetris” is the man who developed it in his spare time, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). This greatly bothers Henk, who works to befriend Alexey on a trip to try to make a deal with the Russian agency ELORG and tries to convince him it’s criminal that he has not benefited from his creation.
Initially, confusion as to who owns the rights to “Tetris” on computers, game consoles and arcade machines reigns. However, the coming of the Nintendo Game Boy — a revolutionary hand-held device that Henk and others correctly believe will be a hugely popular way for a wide range of ages to experience “Tetris” wherever they happen to be at the moment — really shakes things up.
Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton, right) meets with Nindento executives (Togo Igawa and Nino Furuhata) in a scene from “Tetris.” (Courtesy of Apple TV+)
Admittedly, that the movie is messy is likely at least somewhat by design by Pink, who, like Egerton, fondly recalls receiving a Game Boy as a child. Nevertheless, Pink’s writing — the creator of the National Geographic anthology series “Genius” is making his feature-film debut — can be frustrating. Even as the key characters are confused as to who owns what, it should be a little easier for us to keep score at home.
Furthermore, “Tetris” sufferers from tonal issues, Baird (“Stan & Ollie”) landing in the not-so-sweet spot where the film is neither all that comedic nor dramatic enough. That said, he delivers a smile-inducing triumphant moment late in ”Tetris” set to a version of the song “Holding out for a Hero.”
Nikita Efremov as portrays “Tetris” creator Alexey Pajitnov in “Tetris.” (Courtesy of Apple TV+)
That brings us to the movie’s successful use of 1980s nostalgia, including its depiction of the Soviet Union that we perceived from the United States. It … does not seem great there. (In part due to the pandemic, the film was shot in Scotland, not Russia, but many viewers probably would never guess that.)
In front of the camera, Egerton — the star of the first two “Kingsman” movies and the Elton John biopic “Rocketman” who more recently was front and center in the solid Apple series “Black Bird” — is merely fine as Henk. We root for the character, sure, but Edgerton and the movie as a whole are only so successful in making us invest emotionally in him, even though he stands to lose so much in his gamble on the game.
Various people involved with the film have likened it to a Cold War version of “The Social Network” or of “The Big Short,” and while those comparisons may be somewhat illustrative, it does not stand shoulder to shoulder with those films. It is billed as “a Cold War-era thriller on steroids,” and, well, we don’t take issue with the “Cold War” part of that.
Doing relative justice to a very interesting story, “Tetris” is a vaguely entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.
But you’d have more fun playing the game.
Where: Apple TV+.
When: March 31.
Rated: R for language.
Runtime: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
Stars (of four): 2.