If there ever was a story about licensing rights that deserved the “based on a true story” treatment, it’s Tetris. Figuring out who can legally distribute a game may sound like a boring legal discrepancy, but when that game was one developed in Russia just before the fall of the Soviet Union, the quest to secure those rights was a real-life political thriller, perfect fodder for cinematic drama. Watching director Jon S. Baird’s Tetris, though, those pieces just don’t fall into place.
Tetris, out today on Apple TV+, explores this complex legal history through the perspective of Henk Rogers (played by Taron Egerton). In the 1980s, the game designer and entrepreneur found himself entranced by the game after playing it at a trade show. He went on a quest to Russia to secure the rights to the game—a move that pitted him against businessman Robert Stein (Toby Jones), publishing titan Robert Maxwell, and even the KGB. Ultimately, it’s his ability to connect with Tetris developer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) that allows him to secure the game and bring it to about a bajillion Game Boys, but everything until that moment involves more twists and legalese than one can possibly imagine.
If this sounds like the kind of thing you could watch a two-hour YouTube video essay about and not pause once, it is. And if you’re looking for a sleek dramatized version of that story, Tetris delivers. But the film is also somewhat undercut by its struggle to portray certain nuances. At times, it falls into a rather shallow worldview of “capitalism good, communism bad.” This isn’t necessarily due to a failure of character development—there are plenty of capitalist villains running around too. But some of the Soviet characters come off as only slightly more fleshed out than Tim Curry escaping to the one place that hasn’t been corrupted by capitalism.
This dynamic is only made more odd by the inclusion of multiple Soviet officials who seem to be true patriots. What aspect of the communist Soviet Union they believe in or why they do what they do is boiled down to “I want what’s best for my country.” And while there’s a sound moral argument that Pajitnov should be able to profit from his creation—or even simply live safely—there’s little to counter this idea. Who would disagree?
This is probably owed more to the nature of history than any failure of writing. As the film makes clear, the final years of the Soviet Union saw greedy opportunists carving up territory during a governmental collapse. This isn’t the era to look at if you’re interested in a robust examination of opposing economic systems. But a side effect is that Soviet characters come off as either wholly corrupt or naively devoted to a dying ideology.
This simplistic view undermines some of the film’s real tensions. It’s rarely ambiguous who the good guys or the bad guys are. Heroes like Henk and Alexey are earnest and noble, the greedy executives are framed less like Jordan Belfort and more like Thanos. It’s not bad storytelling per se, but for a film full of complex legal and political nuances, these often flat characterizations are a little less than satisfying.
Fortunately, the relationship between Henk and Alexey holds the film together. Tetris’ drama hinges on finding out whether or not they succeed in bringing their game to the masses—a question anyone who played Tetris in the backseat of their mom’s car already knows the answer to. But watching two nerds bond over game design and build a bridge between their wildly different worlds is satisfying in a way that political nuance can’t be.
Not that the film is without its set pieces. The scene, based on a true story, of Soviet agents playing three separate sets of interested parties off one another is a particular delight. But some bits, like Rogers missing his daughter’s recital while trying to seal the deal, come off as cliché.
Of course, some details about the game’s unlikely journey didn’t make it into the movie. During a Q&A after the film’s premiere at South by Southwest, Baird even recommended watching the documentary Tetris: From Russia with Love to catch many of those details. But as a fictionalized version of the game’s story, Tetris feels exactly as exciting as your nerdy friend telling you that you won’t believe how the game really came to be.