Video game adaptations have a troubled history, from the downright bad (Assassin’s Creed or Alone in the Dark) to the mostly tolerable (the wildly off-book but still somehow enjoyable Resident Evil franchise). This year, though, the format was taken to new heights with HBO’s The Last of Us, which many proclaimed to be the first truly great video game adaptation. When first announced, Tetris seemed like it would fall on the spectrum somewhere between bad and tolerable. How were they going to turn the puzzle video game into compelling cinema? For the most part, they don’t do exactly that. Tetris is a serviceable adaptation of the real-life battle for the rights to one of the most famous video games of all time, but for all its visual flair and 80s nostalgia, there’s still something missing when all the pieces come together.
Tetris stars Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers, a Dutch video game designer who founded Bullet-Proof Software. The film introduces Henk at a Las Vegas video game conference where he becomes enamored by the titular video game and buys some of the rights to it. The only problem is that no one is really sure who owns which distribution rights — including Mirrorsoft’s Robert and Kevin Maxwell (Roger Allam and Anthony Boyle), Nintendo execs Togo Igawa (Hiroshi Yamauchi) and Minoru Arakawa (Ken Yamamura), and Robert Stein (Toby Jones). At the center of it all: Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov), the creator of Tetris and a citizen of the Soviet Union. As the legal battle for the rights to Tetris heats up, Henk, along with everyone else vying for the rights, journey back and forth behind the Iron Curtain to have the opportunity to distribute what could be the most popular video game of all time.
Tetris follows a level structure any gamer will be familiar with and, as the stakes increase, so do the levels. There are also moments of pixelation and scene-establishing shots in video game format, and it’s a fun way to add the look and feel of Tetris to a movie that’s not really about Tetris the game, which is the film’s biggest issue. The movie is a look at the battle for the distribution rights to Tetris, which is as dry of a subject as it sounds. Tetris struggles to elevate this story beyond the history books and the film suffers for it. At times, it’s hard to tell who is fighting for what rights (there are arcade rights, PC rights, handheld rights) in which region (Japan, America, the USSR) and this lack of clarity makes it difficult to invest in the thrust of Tetris‘ plot.
Fortunately, the film’s secret weapons are Egerton and Yefremov. Egerton may be best known for his role in the Kingsman franchise, but the actor has proven capable of tackling quieter (or, at least less explosive) material in the AppleTV+ series Black Bird and Rocketman, the Elton John biopic. Here, Egerton plays Henk with a kind of desperate optimism that makes one root for him no matter what. The fact that the film shows Henk with his family also helps. It’s Henk’s friendship with Alexey that really makes Tetris playable, though, bolstering what can otherwise be a confusing middle stretch of meetings and rights talk.
When Tetris falls into the whole “communism bad, capitalism good” finger-wagging shtick common for movies where the USSR is a catch-all villain without nuance, it’s the relationship between Henk and Alexey that makes up for it. There are other stand-out moments like a third act car chase that gets the heart racing, but Tetris is not a thriller, even if it tries to be. It’s about two men trying to make a life for their families. When it loses focus on Henk or Alexey, Tetris tends to lose the plot.
Ultimately, there’s little that’s actually edge-of-your-seat thrilling about Tetris, which is fine. Tonally, it may want the audience to think the stakes are high, but it’s okay that they aren’t. At the center of Tetris is a fish-out-of-water dramedy about Rogers heading to the USSR to secure the rights to Tetris. Egerton gives his all to the role, proving he can play an everyman as easily as the bombast of Elton John. Even if it doesn’t hold all together throughout Tetris’ two-hour runtime, the film is better than the sum of its parts thanks to Egerton and Yefremov fitting together so well.
More: John Wick: Chapter 4 Review – Stahelski’s Brutal Action Thriller Is A Franchise Best
Tetris releases on AppleTV+ on March 31. The film is 118 minutes long and rated R for language.