Tetris (2023) Review
EVERYBODY remembers the first time they played Tetris. The Soviet-puzzle game has been played and enjoyed by millions across the globe with its simplistic concept yet challenging skill ceiling, resulting in over 520 million copies sold since its 1985 release in the United States. But many might not know the controversial circumstances of how the block-based game made its way from the Soviet Union; an unbelievable story director Jon Baird attempts to make sense of in this exuberant cold war thriller.
Video game programmer Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) discovers an alluring block-based puzzle game during a routine video games convention, leading him to dive deeper into the origins of this game known as Tetris. His search leads him face-to-face with Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) who warns Rogers about the dangers of carrying-out American business in the USSR. Despite warnings from everyone, including wife Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi) and Russian translator Sasha (Sofya Lebedeva), Henk continues his quest to obtain the international rights for Tetris and introduce Alexey's industry-changing game to the masses.
The story of how a simple game like Tetris could cause so much controversy in the USSR is truly incredible, and while the movie takes liberties in terms of the action and drama, the concept remains tried and true to the extraordinary formation of a lifelong friendship between two friends, from what felt like, two different worlds considering this was taking place during the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Taron Egerton himself described the film as a 'cold war thriller', and while the first 30 minutes couldn't be anything further from Egerton's perception, Tetris leans heavily into its Soviet setting after the completion of the first act. Upon his introduction to Sasha and Pajitnov, Rogers' personality opens up more to the audience, allowing his hammy businessman persona to come across more natural and satisfying to enjoy. His interactions with the Russian natives provided many highlights throughout the movie, with his first night out with Pajitnov being a pivotal character moment for both men as Europe's The Final Countdown encapsulates the meaning of what it means to be human and how the emotional weight from this gamble of a lifetime hits Henk like an off-shaped tetromino on an open board. The only downside with these relationships was the lack of screentime Henk shared with Sasha as she was terrific in her anxious yet supportive role.
But the real downfall sadly came with the seemingly-forced relationship between Henk and his family. There is a case to be made the absence of meaningful character progression between them was due to their inability to contact each other overseas, but the few scenes they spend together as a family failed to capture the emotional weight needed for a high stakes thriller, only to be overshadowed by cold war politics that was to be expected with a spy thriller.
The 80's cash train is something that doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. The success of Netflix's Stranger Things was an undeniable inspiration for future movies and shows to leech off the past, and Tetris is no different, embracing its mid-1980's setting by including questionable song choices such as Holding Out For a Hero and Heart of Glass during high stakes scenes for the sake of keeping audience's interest in tact. But I'll be honest - I got a kick out of hearing these songs in the film, so I guess it was an effective move to include these legendary songs, but that doesn't make it any less egregious and awkward, especially when these two songs are replayed in Russian and Japanese depending on the character's location.
Jon Baird's Tetris is an entertaining history lesson, containing enough heart and comedic elements to keep casual viewers engaged. The formulaic structure feels ripped right out of the 1980's, along with the costumes and music, but these bricks lay the foundations needed for a perfectly-competent cold war spy thriller that serves as a reminder to how unnerving the relationship was between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.