Tetris movie squanders a story to focus on deals [Apple TV+ review]


Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton in ★★☆☆☆
The hunt for international rights fuels new Apple TV+ movie Tetris.
Photo: Apple TV+

TV+ ReviewNew Apple TV+ movie Tetris is part of a trend I hope goes away — making movies about advances in capitalist innovation. Perhaps the least-interesting subject possible, it’s been done justice precisely once in David Fincher’s The Social Network, because it understood that behind every “genius” is a shell game played by a feckless coward. And trust me, Tetris never reaches the highs of that particular example.

A movie too interested in the destination to enjoy the journey, Tetris tells the tale of the sale of the world’s most ubiquitous video game. The movie, which premieres today on Apple’s streaming service, possesses some small virtues but suffers from big problems.

Tetris movie review

As the movie starts, it’s the late 1980s and Dutch entrepreneur Henk Rogers (played by Taron Egerton) is in a rut. He’s in deep to the bank after a series of disastrous financial decisions, mostly fueled by his continued belief in the video game industry. He’s just created a game based on the Japanese stone-and-board game Go when, at a Vegas software expo, he discovers Tetris, an addictive puzzle game based on falling bricks. After falling in love with the game, Henk buys exclusive rights to sell it in Japan, the last place it was left unsold.

“I played Tetris for five minutes,” Henk says. “I still see falling blocks in my dreams.”

He takes the game to Hiroshi Yamauchi (Togo Igawa), the head of Nintendo’s U.S. division. Yamauchi is so impressed, he allows Henk to make his own Tetris consoles using the company’s branding. (In exchange, Nintendo will get a piece of the action.) The bank agrees to finance Henk’s dream for $3 million. When Henk tells his wife and CFO, Akemi (Ayane), she isn’t thrilled. But she doesn’t want to crush her husband’s dream, so she reluctantly agrees.

Tetris hits like a ton of bricks in the USSR

Meanwhile, the man who created Tetris, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), is in hot water. His game is slowing productivity across the USSR, and the Soviets’ Central Committee has noticed. Its members also noticed the fat licensing check Alexey received from game buyer Robert Stein (Toby Jones), and the future revenue it promises.

However, Stein sold the rights to Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his asshole son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle), who just became CEO of his own gaming company, Mirrorsoft. Kevin found out about Henk’s purchase of the Japanese rights to Tetris, and quickly sold the arcade game rights to Nintendo’s rival, Sega. This throws quite the monkey wrench into Henk’s plan, but Yamauchi has a backup play.

Nintendo recently came up with its newest prototype: a handheld gaming device called the Game Boy. And Henk has another stroke of genius: Sell Tetris for the Game Boy, and it’ll catch on instantly. So he flies to London to buy handheld rights from the Maxwells. Naturally, they don’t own the handheld rights — they don’t even know what that means.

This game is worth some serious money

Robert Stein is in the room, though, and they let it slip that he’s the universal rights holder for Tetris. So Henk offers him $25,000 outside the building in secret. Now that Stein knows that Tetris is worth that much, he tells Atari, and the company offers him $100,000.

Knowing he’s been scooped, Henk flies to Russia on a tourist visa to meet with Elorg, the company Alexey worked for when he licensed Tetris. When Henk arrives, the KGB bugs him and discovers he’s doing business illegally (he needs a separate visa for that). They pick up Henk and threaten him after his first attempt to talk to someone at Elorg.

And the next day, Kevin Maxwell, who has all the right visas, shows up. Now Henk must beat Kevin to the rights in about 12 hours — or he’ll lose everything.

What’s the real story of Tetris?

Nikita Efremov plays game designer in "Tetris," premiering March 31, 2023 on Apple TV+.
Nikita Efremov plays Alexey Pajitnov, the actual creator of the Tetris game.
Photo: Apple TV+

The trouble with a lot of movies about the early days of late-stage capitalism is the stories they tell have already started before we’ve started watching them. I don’t mean companies like Uber and Lyft are so layered into society that they’ve become fundamentally uninteresting, or that WeWork is now a punchline no one remembers (except for the people still using their office space. I’m pretty sure they aren’t laughing).

The problem is that the producers of these types of movies typically seem to have calculated that the entirety of a single storyline is too much for an audience to handle. Ben Affleck’s recent (and quite good) Air doesn’t even show you how Nike started, choosing instead to just give us the week of the Michael Jordan deal that produced the shoe of the title. What this means practically is that, when Henk tells the actual story of Tetris to his bank guy, about Alexey Pajitnov actually creating Tetris in secret, and the game spreading like wildfire through the Soviet Union even though the country’s residents weren’t supposed to have video games, it’s nothing more than a 10-second aside in Henk’s movie.

Personally, I find the story of a video game becoming popular in what was largely a feckless gangster state more compelling than some American buying it, especially if I’m going to watch this unfold over two hours. But Tetris speeds past this interesting bit to the thing that matters the most to screenwriters: the art of the deal. If they’d taken a minute to soak up the atmosphere of any given room, the film could have developed more of an identity.

Tough talk and legalese with the Soviets

Tetris finally gets cooking when it focuses on the intense negotiations behind the Iron Curtain for the rights to Tetris. All the legalese (the stuff of good screenwriting, in my opinion) is treated like the most important thing in the world. Just as a good cover song makes you forget the original, a good based-on-a-true-story movie makes you forget that you don’t care how Facebook was created or Tetris was sold.

I’m a lifelong Tetris player (I hesitate to use the word “fan,” can anyone be called a “fan” of Tetris?), and even I don’t actually care about any of this. The trouble is they let the air out of the balloon too quickly after finally getting it inflated. A great scene of backroom politics slides into calmness right afterward, which is fine enough in theory, but the movie isn’t as interesting when we’re not playing for higher stakes.

Director Jon S. Baird isn’t bad or anything. He’s just got all his ideas secondhand. Here he’s doing a David Fincher impression (complete with a dummy Trent Reznor score provided by Lorne Balfe) to go with his Danny Boyle/Alex Cox impressions from Filth. And of course, it’s worth mentioning, the good stuff in Tetris doesn’t start for a full half-hour.

In fact, the movie’s opening montage is just awful. People talk in declarative fake period-isms. (“This game is swell!” someone swoons at one point.) Look, I was born in 1989 but I can state with 100% confidence that no one ever talked like this in the ’80s. Later, Henk’s banker says, with childish incredulity right out of a Saturday Night Live infomercial parody from the ’90s, “The Robert Maxwell? The billionaire media tycoon?” (Gosh, I was just thinking that.)

Things look up after a slow start

The movie does get better, but it’s a rough road to better. And once you get there, you must deal with a ridiculously inflated East-versus-West narrative and bad father stuff. (Henk literally misses his daughter’s big recital — jail. Jail for this writer).

Actor Taron Egerton has no way into the character of Henk Rogers, partly because Tetris writer Noah Pink never bothered to figure out who Henk is. Is he a loser and a dreamer who risked his financial future, paddling like hell under the placid surface of the waters of his life? Is he a tall-talking visionary who’s smarter than he looks?

Somebody calls Henk a “cowboy” at one point, and he makes as convincing a cowboy as Ryan O’Neal did way back in The Driverbut at least that would have been a direction for a character who has none. Egerton’s always watchable, but after seeing him in Black BirdI want to see more focused work from him.

But that’s endemic of the whole project: all this purpose for something that’s just not very interesting. Baird knows this, too. He invents car chases (which he obnoxiously turns into a video game while it’s happening, just to remind us he doesn’t have a story worth telling. It’s an attempt to make the movie appeal to kids or people drowning in their own nostalgia.). Plus, he ends the movie with footage of the real Henk and Alexey getting along … which of course puts the lie to the entirety of the movie we just watched.

Some stories? Turns out they don’t actually need to be told because no one you’d trust to tell them would accept the assignment. And anyone who would, wouldn’t want to tell the truth.


Watch Tetris on Apple TV+

Tetris premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

Rated: R

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, the director of 30 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.


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