Film review: ‘Tetris’ turns a licensing tale into a thrill ride

Taron Egerton stars as a man on a mission during the Cold War


Here’s a Hollywood pitch that seems unlike to inspire: We tell the tale of getting the licensing rights to a video game in the 1980s.

The tale, however, revolves around Tetris. The year is 1988, and a programmer named Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) is at the Consumer Electronics Show, where he is shown the game Tetris. He think it will be a hit and leaves the Vegas trade show determined to get the licensing rights.

There’s just one catch, and it’s a biggie: Tetris was created by a Russian during the Soviet era un Mikhail Gorbachev. And it turns out that the Soviet Union owns the rights, rather than its creator, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov).

There’s a lot of scrambling for those rights among less-than-honorable folks. Andromeda Software’s Robert Stein (Toby Jones) is in the competition, as is publisher Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), who claims to be a friend of Gorbachev.

On the Soviet side, there are various KGB agents who seek to undermine Rogers and secure bribes from his competitors. And then there’s the humble Pajitnov, the creator who just wants folks to be able to play his game.

As it turns out, the Soviets have already banned the game from state computers because workers are playing it rather than working.

The movie can be confusing at times, partly because licensing rights are complicated. You might have the rights to Tetris on an arcade game, but that doesn’t mean you have the rights to Tetris on a handheld device. And that’s where things get really complicated. Rogers meets the creators at Nintendo who are about to release the first Game Boy, and all of them realize that the handheld rights to Tetris could be an economic bonanza.

Rogers takes off the Soviet Union from his home in Tokyo and does his best to convince Soviet authorities that he will make the best deal. He has the backing of Pajitnov, but that doesn’t mean much, at least not at first, because Pajitnov has no power.

Director Jon S. Baird turns the movie into a Cold War espionage tale, with secret agents, double twists and betrayals. He does this quite inventively, too, using pixelated graphics that mimic the Tetris screen. Credit also must be given to screenwriter Noah Pink, who broads the story to incorporate the rise of capitalism and the fall of communism.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin will probably not be a fan of “Tetris.” But it was a hit at the recent South by Southwest Film and TV Festival. And it has been playing at the Alamo Lakeline. It will be available for streaming on Apple TV + starting March 31.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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