The story of how one of the world’s most popular video games came to be receives its cinematic telling in Jon S. Baird’s Tetris.
Many films and TV shows have been released chronicling stories that may on the surface seem mundane. The Social Network told the story behind the creation of Facebook where many would assume that it’s nothing more than a social media platform that someone came up with before building for example. Many of these things we take for granted have a lot of wrangling behind the scenes that people wouldn’t innately be aware of so there is often a story that can be told. The trick is presenting it in a way that will grip audiences as contract negotiations and meetings about legal rights aren’t necessarily interesting by themselves. As always it’s about finding the story.
In the case of Tetris, there is a story to be told involving wealthy people trying to swindle less wealthy people and vice versa all while dealing with the very scary Soviet Union in order to secure the rights to a game that had the potential to be a hit. The film focuses on Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), the founder of a gaming company called Bullet-Proof Software. Early in the film he stumbles onto Tetris at a gaming convention and makes it his mission to ensure that this game reaches the masses because he recognises the addictive potential of this deceptively simple puzzle game. What follows is a convoluted series of deals, setbacks, negotiations, threats, moves, counter-moves and a bit of luck in the saga surrounding the game. The details of the real-life story surrounding the game are interesting by themselves but this isn’t a documentary so storytelling has to be approached in ways that will excite audiences, a difficult task given
Tetris lives or dies based on the audience investing in Henk securing the rights to the game instead of the others angling for them. He’s our hero so his competitors have to be the villains and the audience needs to root for his success for the film to work. It goes about achieving this through most of the characters being broadly drawn archetypes that viewers are already familiar with forming a given opinion about. Henk is an underdog with a small company who wagers his family’s future on the success of a game his instincts tell him will be a hit. He goes on a journey of sorts built around gaining a greater appreciation of the family he neglects in pursuit of success. It’s in the film to a limited extent and receives an equally limited payoff but the shorthand deployed to make Henk more endearing is evident.
It does largely work. A big part of that is down to Taron Egerton being a charismatic presence who is more than capable of carrying the film. His performance contains multitudes that support whatever the requirement of the scene is be that a loving family man, a shrewd businessman, a caring friend or anything else that is asked of him. He’s sharp, likeable and exactly what the lead of a film like this needs to be.
Other characters don’t fare nearly as well but it’s by design. The father/son business duo Robert (Roger Allam) and Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle) are clearly defined as the opposite of Henk in terms of family and business. Their familial relationship is another form of a business arrangement and both are depicted as being slimy in contrast to Henk’s sincerity where their approach to conducting business is concerned. In many ways, it’s manipulative characterisation but it also works very well in service of the story the film wants to tell. Both actors play their roles excellently both in their scenes together and in scenes they share with others.
A character that could have been much more than the film delivers is Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), the creator of Tetris. Henk persists in striking up a friendship with the man he admires for what he created and a fair chunk of the running time is spent on them bonding but Alexey only exists to fulfil a very particular purpose which makes him seem like a block that completes a line rather than an organic part of an engaging story. A general issue with Tetris is that it commits to a well-trodden formula and does nothing to innovate within it. This really shows the further into the film you get.
There are also various characters representing the interests of the Soviet Union, executives at Nintendo, bank managers, Henk’s family and so forth who appear and disappear when needed. As with everyone else, they perform their purpose and little else. Everyone is in service of Henk’s story and take on specific roles relative to him. They basically amount to obstacle, ally or distraction which, again, is in service of a proven formula but also obviously formulaic.
In an attempt to hide the formula at play, Tetris delivers its story with immense style. Licensing arrangements, legal wranglings and business complexities are punctuated by 8-bit imagery designed to simplify the facts being presented. It’s similar to The Big Short‘s celebrity cutaways explaining the complicated concepts but far less detailed. 8-bit graphics are also used as memorable establishing shots of major locations. It all suggests a loose and light-hearted tale that leans into the charm of the 80s and evokes the entertainment value that Tetris as a game represents. The stylish flourishes reduce massively in the second half of the film when Henk goes to Russia to shift the tone to something akin to a tense thriller. It can be entertaining watching men in suits trying to one-up each other with their superior verbal and contractual manoeuvring but momentum is lost following the promise given in a slick first act. It also slips into being repetitive in places.
Other tactics are employed to attach excitement to the proceedings. A car chase overlayed with 8-bit graphics is a great example of what the film does well, tech enthusiasts are catered to with people gushing over what we would consider very modest technical capabilities and Lorne Balfe’s score heightens the mood of a given scene perfectly. The Tetris music weaves throughout the score as an irresistible earworm to catch the viewer’s attention frequently and it’s all delivered in an accessibly breezy tone that never alienates the viewer.
The Russian set scenes are interesting on a conceptual level. Underneath the mechanical intent of securing video game rights is the idea of communism being defeated by capitalism. It’s a strange example of propaganda that could be seen as a problem, especially when considering external factors occurring at the time of the film’s release but the backdrop of the fall of communism in a story about the rights to a video game adds impressive scope and attaches extra heft to the events that play out here. The fall of communism and the Soviet Union allowed for the worldwide distribution of one of the biggest video games of all time. It’s an insane notion when you think about it. If only the film consistently delivered on the insanity.
A slick and entertaining dramatisation of the insane story behind the popular video game with a charismatic lead, stylish presentation and an accessibly breezy tone.
- stylish presentation
- Taron Egerton’s charismatic leading performance
- an excellent score
- the accessibly breezy tone
- strong use of a proven formula to tell the story
- leaning too heavily on the formula
- the second half becoming repetitive in places
- characters never rising above their defined role in the story
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