SXSW 2023: ‘Tetris’ Review: “Game Over”
Tetris is, was, and will always be a worldwide phenomenon. The puzzle game where you orient four-boxed shapes to create rows that disappear to generate a score transcends cultural boundaries. There’s a world, however, where that game didn’t make it past its origins in the Iron Curtain. Directed by Jon S. Baird (Filth), Tetris aims to tell the riveting true story behind acquiring the rights to the titular game for a global market. Unfortunately, despite a strong start, Tetris slowly deflates as it goes on, losing itself in a mire of Soviet Union cliches and a tendency to put the focus in the wrong place.
Taron Egerton brings the goods as Henk Rogers, an entrepreneur looking to find the next product to bring to market. He has the demeanor of a used car salesman supplanted by a genuine passion for what he does. His meeting with a bank executive is a breathless opener, recounting how he first came upon the game. This is in large part due to an 8-bit graphical sequence and a banging score from Lorne Balfe that ingeniously weaves in the Tetris theme. The film’s supersonic energy continues to a pitch meeting for Nintendo, where after acquiring the Japanese rights to the game, he pitches a cartridge release, saying Nintendo needs partners like Mario and Zelda.
While his supposition allows for the showing of clips from the original Super Mario Bros, the Zelda clip used is from the 2004 release Four Swords Adventures. That lack of attention to detail pervades throughout Tetris. Nevertheless, the true story behind the film is truly fascinating. British media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), through his proprietor Robert Stein (Toby Jones), claims to own at least a part of the rights to the game. This leads to Henk taking a trip to the Soviet Union to figure out the rights situation, of which none is owned by the original creator Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov).
Put the intrigue of the story aside and the villains we have are cardboard cut-outs. Robert Stein is a shlubby, aloof figure whose point seems to be bumbling around. Robert Maxwell is the evil fat cat trying to put Tetris in his own grubby hands. Be that the case in reality, even a morsel of subtlety might’ve worked. Sidekicked by his son Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle), whose daddy issues are so broad they cause the eyes to roll back into the skull, and Tetris is playing to the nosebleeds. Not in a good way.
Once the film shifts to the U.S.S.R, things take a turn for the heavily contrived. Being in enemy territory during a contentious political time should’ve been enough to create sturdy drama. However, these are straight-up “Movie Russians” we’re dealing with. Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler’s vibrant palette drains to a dull gray. The morose backdrop is a playground for Noah Pink’s screenplay to throw as many “filthy capitalists” into the mix. The portrayal of the pervasive corruption in Russia feels more like a parody than the real article.
Henk and Alexey’s relationship threatens to save the picture from this drudgery. The two bond over the appeal of Alexey’s creation, and it’s heartwarming to see them grow together. A more measured movie centered around this burgeoning partnership turned friendship might’ve been really compelling. Really, so much of the true story material opens itself up to rich cinematic interpretation. A third-act race to the airport to escape the Soviet Union, fueled by the propulsive bump of a cover of “Holding Out for A Hero” almost won me over. Sadly, it’s merely a diamond in the rough here.
Tetris brings to life a story just begging to be told in a nuanced, compelling way. Just skimming through Wikipedia articles about what it took to bring this game to audiences everywhere gives one goosebumps. However, Tetris is more concerned with telling a story about the Big Bad Iron Curtain, and those who threatened to pry this game from sweet Henk’s hands. Despite a strong start, Tetris babies the audience in a way the deceptively complex puzzle game never has. – James Preston Poole
Tetris releases on Apple TV+ on March 31.
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