Tetris Doesn’t Stack Up

How can a film based on a game about perfectly interlocking pieces be so messy?

Taron Edgerton and Nikita Efremov smiling
Apple TV+

Tetris is a simple, satisfying game. Blocks arranged in different geometric shapes fall from the top of the screen, get rotated to and fro, and fall into rows that clear when the pieces fit together just so. Playing Tetris can be a meditative experience; the game can be understood in any language and tackled by anyone of any age, and it can even seep into addicted players’ dreams. Tetris is popular because it’s pleasurable.

So why is Tetris, the film about how the game became a worldwide phenomenon, so tiresome? Directed by Jon S. Baird, the movie purports to be a tale of culture shock and unexpected connection: It follows the American entrepreneur Henk Rogers (played by Taron Egerton) as he journeys to the Soviet Union in the 1980s to persuade the game’s inventor, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), to license the game for international distribution. But Tetris, which streams March 31 on AppleTV+, devolves into a breathless mishmash of gimmicks and contrived twists, becoming simultaneously underwhelming and overcomplicated. Like a frustrated player speeding up the falling blocks to end the game, the film haphazardly stacks ideas atop one another until, well, it’s a relief when it’s over.

Watching Tetris induces none of the sedate calm that playing Tetris does; scenes seem to unfold in no particular order. The film wants to be many things: a goofy comedy about the chaos that went into introducing Tetris to the rest of the world, a Cold War–era spy thriller told through the eyes of an unconventional hero, and an incisive character study amid a larger series of legal battles. There are as many cutesy, eight-bit animated interstitials—with characters labeled “players” and story chapters called “levels”—as there are car chases and under-lit scenes taking place in ominous alleyways and chilly conference rooms. The overstuffed script flashes backwards and forwards, veering off to introduce characters who should have been cut long before the final draft. There’s no need, for instance, to have Henk tell his tale to a bank manager on top of the voice-over narration he already provides.

Worse, the film assumes that Henk is an irresistibly interesting protagonist. He’s not. Tetris fawns over him—perhaps because the real Henk Rogers serves as an executive producer—but the character never gets much dimension. Apart from depicting him as a determined avatar of Western ideals who pitches his ideas with gusto, the script refuses to explore his motivations and flaws, as if afraid to render him as anything but a genius. Egerton does his best to convey some desperation to the man’s dogged pursuit of a video-game-licensing deal, but Henk is flat: His ignorance of Eastern European customs is treated as heroic, his bullish risk-taking as visionary, and his lucky breaks as clever maneuvers. “Your cowboy reputation precedes you,” one character tells him, long before the audience has seen why.

Not that anyone else fares much better. The Russian characters, save for Alexey, are cartoonishly menacing. Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), the since-disgraced British newspaper magnate, and his son Kevin (Anthony Boyle) are cruel and whiny, respectively. Henk’s family, especially his wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi), is ever patient and ever kind. Everyone is a cliché, but then again, so is everything about Tetris. Scenes that take place in Moscow are shot in drab grays; scenes set in America are perpetually sunny. The Communist characters are deceptive; the British capitalists are corrupt. Only Henk can do honest work, the movie proclaims, again and again. The game of Tetris is meant for just one player, after all.

Making a film about the drama that went into bringing Tetris to consoles everywhere could have worked; it’s possible to deliver a well-made, character-driven piece about the invention of something uncinematic. And Hollywood seems eager to tell more such stories. Coming soon to theaters or a streaming platform near you: Air, the untold story of the Air Jordan sneaker line; BlackBerry, the untold story of the once-ubiquitous phone; and Flamin’ Hot, the untold story of the spicy Cheetos. These are variations on the classic biopic, origin stories about super-products rather than superheroes. But they only work if they remember to tell an actual story rather than just cheer for the story’s existence. Most of what happens in Tetris did happen in real life; unfortunately, that’s not enough. Its pieces never fit together, resulting in a movie that’s just plain messy—the last thing a Tetris game should be.