‘Tetris’ Review: Falling Blocks and Rising Freedom

Like it’s namesake, this film is clever, crafty and shockingly entertaining.

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By Jeannette Catsoulis

When the Communist Party bans your video game from state computers because it’s lowering workers’ productivity, you know you have a hit on your hands. But in 1988, few people outside the Iron Curtain were even aware of the existence of Tetris, never mind its potential to enchant millions. While its Russian creator, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), was giving away copies for free, a savvy programmer named Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) was witnessing a demonstration of the game at a Las Vegas trade show and having his mind blown.

Like its namesake, Jon S. Baird’s “Tetris” is clever, crafty and shockingly entertaining. Both origin story and underdog dramedy, the movie presents a fictionalized account of Henk’s epic quest to obtain licensing rights to multiplatform versions of the game. Assembling a story that’s equal parts astonishing and bamboozling, Baird and his screenwriter, Noah Pink, pit communism against capitalism and individual passion against corporate greed. Hacking gleefully into the deal-making weeds, the filmmakers refuse to shy away from wordy conference-room negotiations and head-spinning double-crosses as Henk bets his home, and at one point his freedom, on a long shot.

While the Tetris player competes only with herself, Henk — played by Egerton with bushy-tailed zeal — must battle multiple, more powerful adversaries. There’s the weaselly Robert Stein (Toby Jones) of Andromeda Software; the infamous publishing magnate Robert Maxwell (the great Roger Allam), friend of Mikhail Gorbachev (and father of Ghislaine Maxwell), who would go on to pillage his companies’ pension funds; and, not least, the Soviet authorities who own the game, including a cartoonish K.G.B. goon seeking to line his own pockets.

There are enough characters here for an entire television series, and Pink sweats blood to cram them all in. At times, the film’s sheer complexity can muddy its identity and stymie its merry momentum. To counter the denseness, Baird works vintage color graphics into pixelated animations that illustrate the movie’s chapters, and some location shooting in Aberdeen, Scotland (Baird’s hometown), doubles ably for Moscow. As Henk racks up frequent-flier miles on three continents (he has an ultrapatient wife and a brood of adorable children in Tokyo), Baird remains staunchly by his superhero’s side. He even gives him an 11th-hour car chase.

Though too goofy to work as a Cold War thriller — the unveiling of Nintendo’s revolutionary Game Boy console presents like the discovery of penicillin — “Tetris” is alert to the restrictions and dangers of a Soviet Union on the brink of implosion. In one of its most enjoyable sequences, Alexey takes Henk to an underground nightclub, where a reveler excitedly screams that the Estonians have declared independence. The blocks have begun to fall.

Fast and fizzy and relentlessly buoyant, “Tetris” finds its heart in the connection between these two men, the game’s modest creator and its tenacious evangelist. (Hang out for a few minutes during the end credits to see their real-life counterparts interact.) When we watch them play together, we see Henk, for the first time, relax; maybe he’s realizing that in business, the only person you can trust is the one who has nothing to gain.

Rated R for blue language, red scares and dirty money. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. Watch on Apple TV+.

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