Tetris, which lands on AppleTV+ March 31st, purports to tell the origin story for the famous block-stacking game we Gen Y-ers* remember so fondly, using the self-starting schemer and dreamer who “brought it to America” as its main character. That’s a fairly straightforward pop-movie pitch, and Tetris takes pains to camouflage itself as that pop movie. Yet it’s clear midway through that all the stylistic tricks in the world aren’t going to turn this into Eddie The Eagle.
(*I do not use the term “elder millennial.” If you learned to masturbate via analog methods, you are not a millennial. We are Gen Y — after X, before millennial.)
Every character in this story is much weirder and far more complicated than the format seems to allow for. Disguising something strange as something familiar is a classic artist’s trick, but there are times you wonder how much director Jon S. Baird and writer Noah Pink are deliberately Trojan Horseing and how much they’ve been Trojan Horsed themselves. To their credit, they’ve managed to make a fairly entertaining movie out of what is essentially a games licensing battle, a dull and granular branch of business law, even for business law. In order to do that, they turned their hero’s story into a video game quest, complete with 8-bit graphics as chapter markers. They gain a product, but maybe at the expense of a soul. Which is, admittedly, pretty apt.
Taron Egerton plays Henk Rogers, a Ted Lasso optimistic dreamer-style guy with a Vh-1 I Love The 80s mustache. The hypercolor, commercialized eighties we sell in 2023 has now completely subsumed the actual 1980s, but Tetris is nothing if not conspicuously stylized, so it’s of a piece. Henk is a Dutch-born American expat living in Japan** but we don’t know that at first. We just know that his last videogame flopped, and he thinks he’s found the next big thing when he sees Tetris at a trade show. He uses his last proverbial dime to buy the console and arcade rights to it in Japan, and offers up his house as collateral to a banker while begging for an even bigger loan to help him produce all the games he’s promised to his new partners at Nintendo.
(** Trying to pin down even one aspect of Tetris‘s story is like trying to squish a watermelon seed with your finger. It just squirts off somewhere else. Every character in the story is like this if you dig even a little.)
When those Nintendo boys show Henk the prototype for the Gameboy, he knows this simple block game is the perfect fit for its 8-bit, black-and-white graphics. It’s a potential goldmine, he just has to secure the handheld rights from their current owner — the USSR’s software publishing body, Elektronorgtechnica, aka ELORG, who in turn took them over from Tetris’ actual inventor, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), who stands to gain nothing other than patriotic pride.
Henk, being the dreamer that he is, just shows up at ELORG unannounced and on a tourist visa, at which point he learns from the ELORG director that the games he’s been making are basically bootlegs, on account of the guy he bought the rights from never had the rights to them in the first place. This is due to a complicated series of events that saw a shady fixer named Robert Stein (Toby Jones), “discover” the game behind the iron curtain. He then sold/promised its worldwide rights to Mirrorsoft, a company owned by British business tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), and run like a make-work program for Robert’s desperate-to-prove-himself silver spoon son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle). As the movie tells it, Kevin keeps trying to negotiate Legitimate Business while his evil father constantly undercuts him by doing corruption, the father leaning on his personal friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev for leverage.
Astute readers may be realizing now something that took most of a movie to dawn on me: “Robert Maxwell” isn’t just some rich British guy. He’s Ghislaine Maxwell’s father. The one who died under incredibly shady circumstances, supposedly drowning near his yacht, “The Lady Ghislaine,” right after defaulting on £50 million in loans from Goldman Sachs. He actually wasn’t even originally British, having been born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch in Czechoslovakia before fighting in the resistance and eventually getting naturalized. Kevin is Ghislaine’s brother.
The movie never mentions any of this, not even in the epilogue text, and I suppose that’s understandable, given the Jeffrey Epstein connection being an uncloseable can of worms that would hijack the story were it to be breached.
That spicy a-meat-a-ball of a factoid aside, the parties maneuvering for the Tetris rights are: the Maxwells, Robert Stein, Henk, ELORG, Pajitnov, and a Communist party official named Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov), a sneering, greasy-haired, ostrich-eyed villain in a turtleneck who would’ve been over-the-top in Rocky IV (my God, just look at this dude’s face, the greasy hair and turtleneck are practically redundant). At first I took Trifonov to be warmed over Cold War propaganda, the True Believer Communist who will stop at nothing to prevent evil western-style freedom from corrupting the citizens with cheap Pepsi and exposed bosoms.
Trifonov is not a true believer, however, but a skeptic who senses the impending collapse of the Soviet Union and wants to secure his bag at the expense of his country. This in opposition to the True Russian Patriots like Pajitnov and ELORG’s manager. Yes, there is a very corny scene in which Pajitnov takes Henk to a secret Russian rock n’ roll rave party set in a graffiti-strewn brutalist parking garage, where proto-dissidents scream about wanting Levis and dance to “The Final Countdown.” But Trifonov, in colluding with the Maxwells, seems meant to represent not the Communist state, but the collusion between self-interested Russians and predatory capitalists, which characterized the coming Yeltsin-gangsters-oligarchs period of Russia in the 90s. (Putin’s popularity stems largely from clamping down on the chaos of that era, even though it birthed him).
If the villains in Tetris are the “bad” capitalists, it’s a bit of an open question what makes Henk a “good” one. Is it because he has a nice mustache? Is it because he bet his actual house and took a risk? To paraphrase William Wallace, the tycoon who bleeds on his yacht after defaulting on a 50 million pound loan, does he not also risk?
What’s objectively clear is that Henk did what everyone else did in this story: smelled a big opportunity and rushed in to try to get his beak wet, even though he didn’t actually invent shit. Certainly, he befriends Pajitnov and bonds with him (they like the same programming languages, awww!), but it’s hard to say whether this actually represents Henk fighting for the real inventor or just doing a more elegant job getting Pajitnov to relax his proverbial anus before screwing him.
Tetris is cheeky on every level, and maybe we’re supposed to apply a jaundiced eye to this story about the triumph of “nice” capitalism. But even the most charitable read holds that the more interesting exploration of who could and should own which IP gets subsumed by the hero’s journey structure. This arcane battle over rights eventually devolves, Argo-like, into an actual car chase which is believable on exactly zero levels.
Maybe Henk Rogers really was the “good guy” in all this — which doesn’t sound like a hard thing to be compared to Robert Maxwell and various shady fixers — but with an ending as outlandish as Tetris‘s, it’s impossible to know which parts we’re supposed to take at face value. Tetris is mostly entertaining and simplifies an impossibly complex story admirably, but it also loses some its most important themes in the process.
‘Tetris’ streams March 31st, only on Apple TV+. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.