Tetris Review: As Addictive And Thrilling As The Game Itself [SXSW 2023]

"Tetris" is a fantastic retelling of the rather incredible story behind the game. This is not really about the game, mind you, but about the bizarre, complex, and — if you were to believe the film — almost country-ending story behind the acquisition of the rights to the game. Thanks to yet another compelling and hugely entertaining performance by Taron Egerton, some genuinely thrilling moments, and some imaginative visuals, "Tetris" is as addictive and exciting as the game that inspired it.

A lot has been said about video game adaptations, from those who believe "The Last of Us" is the first good video game adaptation to those who know "Arcade," "Castlevania" and "Sonic the Hedgehog" proved video games could make for incredible TV and film. But there is no plot driven by puzzles or moving different shapes here. Instead, we follow developer and publisher Henk Rogers (Egerton) as he tries to get the publishing rights to "Tetris" for Nintendo as they prepare to launch their first handheld console, the GameBoy. 

The problem is that the rights are, well, a bit of a mess, and the only way to sort them out is to head to the old U.S.S.R. Of course, that is easier said than done, and once Henk decides to head to Moscow he gets involved in a political thriller involving spies, greedy politicians, trigger-happy KGB agents and more.

It's the final countdown

Directed by Jon S. Baird, the film succeeds by taking the absurdity and the crazy twists and turns of the story and marrying it with a sheer love of gaming, accomplishment, puzzle work, and obstacles. Indeed, Noah Pink's script employs a gamified framing device, presenting the main characters with stakes in getting the rights for the game as actual video game players — in addition to Henk, there's Robert Maxwell and his son Kevin, two wealthy, stupid, ruthless, and obnoxious businessmen out of London, and also Robert Stein, who originally bought the rights but now finds himself in a bureaucratic pickle. Likewise, segments of the story are presented as levels to be overcome, like a greedy politician who sees the end of communism and wants to save himself and earn a few bucks along the way.

Baird takes the video game elements and literally turns them into pixels, at times marrying live-action with animation to make reality a game, like a car chase with 8-bit cars. This helps sell the idea that this is a heightened version of the story, but also makes it an entertaining, compelling underdog story — even if that underdog works for the most powerful gaming company of the time. 

A game-changer

Much like "Rocky IV," this is a movie that tries to tie the fall of the Soviet Union to a singular event involving an American protagonist. Rather than something simple like punching the perfect boxer and giving a powerful speech that ends the Cold War, however, "Tetris" draws a connection between the sale of the rights to the game, the opening of Russia to commerce, and fears of becoming too capitalist, and the feeling of the imminent fall of the Soviet Union that causes chaos amongst those in power, who seek only to fill their pockets as the rats flee the ship. It makes for a compelling theme, one that Baird manages to weave into the story in order to add some interesting context without detracting from the thrills and the crowd-pleasing excitement.

It helps that the film is grounded in Egerton's performance. Much like he did in "Eddie the Eagle," Egerton is phenomenal at playing lovable fools with a dream that you can't help but root for even as they get way in over their heads. And even though "Tetris" does, unfortunately, leave the actual creator of "Tetris," Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), on the sidelines to focus on Henk, the film does pay respect to the brilliant programmer who also risked a lot in order to get the game out to the masses.

"Tetris" is a fantastic look at the story behind the rights to one of the most popular games ever, a movie that shows that video game adaptations (like games themselves) can come in all forms and be great. This is a crowd-pleaser through and through, and much like the game that gives it its title, it is hard to look away once its title card drops.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10