If 2022 was the year of taking down the rich in Triangle of Sadness, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and The Menu, then 2023 is the year for telling the story of the companies that made so many of those people rich. Corporations have already tied their hands around movies with product placement (a favorite of David Lynch), tie-ins, promotional screenings, and merchandising. Now they’ve cut out the middleman and made themselves the star of the show. Just on the docket within the next few months are Air, Blackberry, Flamin’ Hot, and Barbie.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom, as for every glorified commercial (Mac and Me) there is a smart and interesting story about power and ambition (The Social Network). Landing somewhere in the middle (to be fair, it leans more towards the good side) is Tetris, which explores the complex origins of the simple game that has gone on to entertain billions of people.
“Good ideas have no borders,” says Alexey Pajitnov, inventor of Tetris to Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) as they embrace at a Moscow rave. The statement is especially true in this situation because there’s not much else that would make a Dutchman game designer, an American lawyer, and two British tycoons converge in the heart of the Soviet Union. To all these people, Tetris is the perfect video game, with the simple task of stacking blocks being incredibly addictive.
However, it’s just as hard to get something out of Russia as it is to get in. To the Communist Party, a sale of Tetris to the West would be the start of a slippery slope, one where capitalism slowly poisons their socialist society. KGB operatives watch Henk all day and night, blackmailing and threatening him at every turn. What ensues is a suspenseful game filled with high-stakes and tough negotiations.
Screenwriter Noah Pink (creator of the anthology series Genius) initially struggles to seamlessly lay out the level, opting for an incredibly exposition-heavy opening where Henk explains the intricacies of video game distribution to his less-than-impressed banker. Director Jon S. Baird makes this more entertaining visually as Egerton’s narration goes over a series of 8-bit animated sequences. The gaming aesthetics don’t stop there, as Baird takes Henk’s line of how he “still sees blocks” after only playing the game for five minutes in its most literal form. The coldly gray Soviet buildings are outlined in blocks, ready to be toppled over once everything is aligned just right.
Because of where and when it's set, Tetris finds itself at a pivotal showdown between traditional Communist loyalists and new-era Russian idealists. Many of the thinly drawn Russian villains are better capitalists than the actual capitalists themselves. But they’re no match for Henk’s relentless optimism, which overwhelms their natural pessimistic mistrust. Egerton brings a lot of charisma to his role, charging headfirst through every obstacle.
The blocks may fall a little too easily for Tetris, but that doesn’t take away from the appreciation it deserves for guiding us through this concrete jungle of paperwork and legal minutia. Coincidentally, it also illustrates how far technology has come since then, as this story of arcade machines and handheld gaming consoles will be seen by everyone through Apple TV+’s streaming service.