As fact-based movies go, “Tetris” plays like a Cold War espionage thriller, which merely underscores the crazy amount of globetrotting intrigue that surrounded the introduction of this very popular game. Starring Taron Egerton, this Apple TV+ movie, like the game, is colorful and engaging enough that it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen.
Hewing pretty closely to what actually happened, the film casts Egerton (who also headlined Apple’s “Black Bird”) as Henk Rogers, who is introduced discovering Tetris at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1988, instantly becoming obsessed with acquiring the rights to what he sees as “a license to print money.”
Unfortunately for him, the road to that hoped-for payday leads to Moscow, where an inventor named Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) created the game in his spare time, placing its stewardship in the hands of Soviet authorities, through an organization known as ELORG.
A P.T. Barnum type, Rogers leaves his skeptical wife (Ayane Nabaguchi) and family behind, embarking on a perilous quest that includes corrupt Russian officials, the equally shady British mogul Robert Maxwell (Robert Allam) – who later died under mysterious circumstances – and another acquirer of such games, Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who first came across the Tetris rights.
Rogers at first seems blissfully unaware of the danger to which he’s exposing himself, or the watchful eyes that could cause trouble for Pajitnov. The plot does become a bit convoluted in places dealing with the wonky question of who owns what, from hand-held games to the arcade and computer versions.
Still, “Tetris” manages to conjure considerable tension in the unexpected twists that arise as Rogers undergoes various contortions to navigate this intricate maze, in a story that unfolds with the collapse of the Soviet Union looming large in its near future. Add to that Russia’s current war in Ukraine and the film possesses a timeliness that goes beyond just another “The Americans”-style trip down memory lane.
Director Jon S. Baird (“Stan and Ollie”) and writer Noah Pink wisely don’t overplay their hand or make Rogers ridiculously heroic, though he is so determined to land the rights as to ignore the collateral damage he might unleash. Egerton helps hold it all together as a believable everyman, straddling the line between nerve and pigheaded foolishness.
Adding to this is the realization that the abundant drama deals with what was, after all, a game, one with which many no doubt have their own nostalgic associations. The business aspect and the ’80s framing in some respects mirrors another movie arriving soon, “Air,” built around Nike’s pursuit of another lucrative commodity – namely, an association with basketball legend Michael Jordan.
In both films, the protagonist has a kind of epiphany, whether that’s watching Jordan play or Rogers playing Tetris, which he quickly dubs “a perfect game.”
“Tetris” isn’t a perfect movie, but for the purposes of justifying Apple TV+’s investment, it stacks up just fine.
“Tetris” premieres March 31 on Apple TV+. It’s rated R. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a division of Apple.)