Tetris: falling blocks escape the Eastern Bloc

This boardroom drama masquerading as a spy thriller is an absurdly jingoistic account of Dutch entrepreneur Henk Rogers’s wrangling of the commercial distribution rights for the eponymous game.

16 March 2023

By Mark Asch

L-R: Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov as Henk Rogers, Sasha and Sergey Pajitnov in Tetris (2023)
Sight and Sound

One might expect a movie named Tetris to be an experimental film, whose recombinant formalism builds on the game’s geometric elegance; or an animated movie in which the seven Tetris shapes are, Pixar-style, granted distinct personalities and sent on a quest; or even a kind of sports movie set in the cut-throat world of tournament play. Jon S. Baird’s Tetris, however, is a film only an entertainment lawyer could love: a Great Man history of the game, concerning the entrepreneur who flew to Moscow to hammer out the licensing agreements.

Due to the diffuse and often fly-by-night nature of software publishing in the then-emerging home market, the negotiations over the rights to Tetris outside of the Eastern Bloc were fraught, carried out amid the shifting political and economic terrain of the glasnost era and involving bids from players including the ascendent Nintendo as well as Mirrorsoft, owned by a pre-downfall Robert Maxwell (played here by Roger Allam in Tom Hanks-as-Colonel Parker facial prosthetics). Taron Egerton stars as the “cowboy” Henk Rogers, who, inspired by a glimpse of Tetris and haunted by visions of falling blocks and dancing dollar signs, sets out to liberate the game from totalitarianism.

Baird makes communist Moscow look monochrome and miserable, pushing the crummy greys and crumbling Brutalism, though most of this weary dystopia’s exteriors were shot in his native Aberdeen. The game’s state-sponsored designer Alexey Pajitnov, seen in vintage real-life VHS footage over the end credits, appears gregarious and joyful, more enthusiastic about his game’s popularity than concerned with its profitability (his employers, the USSR itself, owned the rights); the film’s Pajitnov, played by Nikita Efremov, is perpetually hunched, wincing and cowed, a humble peasant given licence to dream for the first time by the American-accented Rogers, who rocks out on air guitar while the KGB taps phone lines.

Tetris forces its boardroom drama into the shape of a ludicrously high-stakes espionage thriller, with double-crosses and chase scenes goosed with generic retro computer-graphics; beady-eyed apparatchiks lurk behind every corner, their presence invariably underlined by threatening low synth tones. In a film about the brave gunslinger who dared to negotiate a copyright agreement, there is nothing more sinister than state ownership of intellectual property. Tetris features more jingoistic dialogue about “freedom” than The Hunt for Red October (1990), and its coda directly links the release of the Game Boy to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The exit-music needle-drop of Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ is, I fear, not meant ironically.

Tetris will be available to stream on Apple TV+ from 31 March.

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