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Tetris — How the puzzle game escaped Soviet Russia in 1988

Tetris — How the puzzle game escaped Soviet Russia in 1988
Production still from 'Tetris'. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Instead of being set in the game world, ‘Tetris’ tells the wild true story of how the iconic puzzle title made it from Russia into the world. It’s buoyed by a motivated lead performance but some of its story beats reek of distracting Hollywoodisation.

Tetris is a very different kind of video game film. Unlike the Uncharteds, and Sonic the Hedgehogs, Tetris keeps the action very much in our reality. Well, to a certain degree. This thriller, based on real-life events, is noticeably pounded to fit the Hollywood mould at times, but it nonetheless presents the fascinating true story of how the puzzle game Tetris escaped Soviet Russia in 1988 to become a global cultural phenomenon.

For a film that is mostly about people bickering over contracts and negotiating licensing rights in utilitarian boardrooms, Tetris is surprisingly entertaining and breezy. Continually referencing its video game source material, establishing shots and key scenes are overlaid with colourful eight-bit graphics. More important in energising the film, though, is Taron Egerton’s performance as small-scale video game publisher Henk Rogers

Rogers is a likeable everyman who sees the potential of Tetris to capture the imagination of everyone – not just gaming’s traditional adolescent audience — and therefore won’t take no for an answer in the heated contest to secure the handheld rights from the Russian authorities. There is no property ownership in the Communist USSR, of course, so Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) has no say in the matter, with his bosses at state-owned computer company Elorg handling the deal instead.

Forced to bargain in person in the Soviet Union, which means numerous bureaucratic obstacles, and severe culture clashes, Rogers has to stay motivated. He’s put everything on the line as collateral, from his company to the Tokyo home that his wife and children live in. And yet, he doesn’t succumb to the underhanded tactics of his rivals — which include hefty media tycoon Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), his pampered son Kevin (Anthony Boyle), and fellow small-scale game licenser Robert Stein (Toby Jones). All Rogers wants to do is secure a fair deal for everyone concerned.

It’s this sense of fairness that is Tetris’s greatest emotional hook. Audiences want underdog Rogers to succeed as he’s caught in the middle between ruthless 80s capitalism out of the West (represented by the Maxwells), and the utterly self-serving side of communism that has taken root east of the teetering Berlin Wall. The latter is embodied by Igor Grabuzov’s greasy Valentin Trifonov, head of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

Production still from 'Tetris'. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Production still from ‘Tetris’. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Production still from 'Tetris'. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Production still from ‘Tetris’. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Production still from 'Tetris'. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Production still from ‘Tetris’. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Production still from 'Tetris'. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Production still from ‘Tetris’. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

Trifonov’s corruption will hit especially hard for South African audiences, as he’s a political authority who prioritises personal enrichment at the expense of their country. Having long ago discarded ideological principles, Trifonov drives bad deals if bribes slide into his pocket, bullying and beating good people into submission if they stand in his way. Meanwhile, the general population live miserable lives of deprivation, and waiting in long queues. 

Tetris provides an eye-opening and convincing look at Russia during the last-gasp days of the Soviet Union. In fact, the film nails the era of the late 80s in general, inside and outside the USSR. It’s just a pity that the same sense of credibility doesn’t extend through the entire film. Maybe it’s because we see so much brazen corporate sliminess on the daily now, but the characters’ ferocious drive to do the legally right thing, and not just distribute Tetris without a licensing agreement, doesn’t ring true. Then again, this plot point could be explained away as simply doing business at a different time.  

Far less excusable, and believable, is a high-stakes car chase to cap off the film. It’s unquestionably exciting, but given the amount of time Tetris spends on showing Soviet Russia as a surveillance state, all the villains really needed to do is make one phone call to stop Rogers and co. But then viewers wouldn’t receive their crowd-pleasing finale, where the heroes triumph and the boo-hiss bad guys get their comeuppance.

As a piece of history turned into brisk, easy-to-digest entertainment, all the pieces are present in Tetris, barring a consistent sense of plausibility. DM/ ML

This story was first published on Pfangirl.com. Tetris was released on Apple TV+ on 31 March.

'Tetris'. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

‘Tetris’. Image: Apple TV+ / Supplied

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