Long before mobile games became the standard time-wasting handheld obsession, there was Nintendo’s Gameboy, and along with it came an unknown game that exploded into one of the most unexpected global sensations for young and old: Tetris. Apple TV+ brings the story of the meager beginnings of the game from a programmer (Nikita Yefremov) in Russia to the ambitious American salesperson who fought to bring the game to the world in the biopic film Tetris.
Taron Egerton (Rocketman) stars as Henk Rogers, the aforementioned sales agent who stumbles across an early version of Tetris while selling an inferior competing game at a convention in Las Vegas. From there, Henk becomes enamored with the simple, but challenging game addiction. He risks his family life, career, and even his freedom battling international factions, including a dangerous Russian government flailing for vindication at the end of the Cold War, resorting to underhanded business maneuvers and espionage to gain the rights to Tetris.
Tetris, directed by Jon S. Baird, is an enjoyably stylized biopic, but takes ludicrous liberties to Hollywood-ize the actual history of those involved. The film uses entertaining tonal choices like Japanese and Russian cover songs of popular 80s and 90s hits, alongside neat 8-bit title cards to introduce each act. Baird even occasionally turns things on-screen into flashes of 8-bit video game versions of people and things, including a nifty car chase scene near the end of the film.
But speaking of the car chase, therein lies the problem with Tetris: there’s so much obvious embellishment to make the film more exciting and/or suspenseful that it borders on parody of the biopic genre. Whether you know the history or not, it’s ridiculously obvious that Henk Rogers wasn’t involved in perilous car chases or playing high stakes politic negotiations with Gorbachev’s right-hand men and women. The real life Henk has even said as much, “It’s a Hollywood script; it’s a movie. It’s not about history, so a lot of [what’s in the movie] never happened.”
On top of the hyperbolic approach to a much more low key story, Tetris is littered with tropes from “based on a true story” movies that attempt to entertain while “educating.” Henk misses his daughter’s big, important school performance for work, he has a wife that only wants her husband around and not financial stability, and of course, the rise-fall-redemption plot structure; it’s predictable start to finish.
To the film’s credit, if you agree to just go for the ride, it’s a good time with genuine performances and some interesting historical backstory amidst the Hollywood glam-up. Egerton has a Ted Lasso type charm as Henk and it’s easy to root for him after each frustrating setback. The always great Toby Jones as Henk’s rival for the game rights, Robert Stein, is a great foil for him and his sneaky, self-serving indignation makes his inevitable comeuppance quite satisfying. Roger Ellam is equally hateable as the gluttonous, shifty billionaire Robert Maxwell who exploits his “friendship” with Gorbachev at every turn.
There’s a lot to like in Tetris if you prefer your biopics fluffy and fun. The snazzy direction and endearing performance from Egerton mixed with the leveled-up 8-bit nostalgia makes it a breezy watch if, you know, historical accuracy isn’t your thing.
Score: 3 out of 5