The 1980s were chock full of Cold War pop flicks like Red Dawn, Rocky IV, and WarGames. There was no sympathy to be had for the other side, only paranoia. And any attempt to delve into the psyches of its Soviet antagonists was buried under pop song-laden montages and heroic hubris.
These movies could have represented a film genre in their own right. Both tensions and confusion were high for Americans who were deprived of any diversity of information and lacked the trust in the government as embers from Watergate were very much still glowing. The U.S. was in a good place though, in hindsight, in the sense that there was some sense of unity among us—or at least the appearance of unity.
The same was happening in the Soviet Union, as a matter of fact. Information was funneled and manipulated. And a moratorium on the outside world led to propagandized media and an entire generation that had to cobble together artistic enthusiasm, if it were even there to begin with.
Blending elements from The Social Network and Argo, Tetris tells the story of the development of the iconic video game following its creation by a computer whiz in the Soviet Union. It quickly lands in the hands of a game designer-turned-businessman, Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), in 1988 where he finds himself on the front lines of a global IP war that’s made needlessly difficult thanks to lies, semantics, and conspiracy. All he wants is to make some fair money off a game that he believes will change the world.
Directed by Jon S. Baird, the film takes a hagiographical approach to Tetris’ legacy, although it sticks to a relatively small scope when dealing with the drama surrounding it. Rather than conveying the game’s importance to culture as a whole, we simply see the effect it has on the people in this story. Henk plays the game only once—which is apparently enough to send him off on these life-threatening tribulations in the U.S.S.R. The real subtext of it all is that Tetris, the game, is so good that it warrants going through all of this trouble.
Compared to The Social Network, which was really about the virulent effects of pride and arrogance on your most valuable relationships, Tetris keeps a similarly narrow lens when it comes to its protagonist but then inserts Soviet political tension into the fray. The result is exciting but not necessarily conducive to developing our lead as a well-rounded individual. While this is based on actual events, the tale loses some plausibility when Henk makes stupid decisions before taking the time to figure out if there’s ever an alternative.
Luckily, Egerton does a solid job beaconing our empathy while earning our respect. Other characters include the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), a soft-spoken Russian living under the thumb of communism and not allowed to make a penny for his brilliance, and Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov), the head of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs who has easily the most interesting arc in the film. Among the other villains twirling their mustaches, Trifonov has more nuance: a communist who loves his country but must actually go behind the backs of the corrupt leaders who use these ideals as a guise for their own selfish gain.
Stylized with 8-bit animated overlays and Lorne Balfe’s synth pop score which convinces us that the dry details of this yarn are actually thrilling, Tetris often looks like it’s just one level up from a TV movie—albeit a really good TV movie. It definitely has nostalgia and intrigue on its side and uses those to its benefit without feeling exploitative.
As for the facts, the real Rogers and Pajitnov reviewed the script ahead of time. And so, we can assume that enough of the story is accurate, if that’s important to you. However, within reason, it shouldn’t always matter if movies exaggerate or add details of a true story, because that’s how we remember things. We don’t remember Wikipedia articles but loose recollections of bullet points that represent the essence of the truth—and oftentimes those bullet points will be embellished with a car chase or two.
There are definitely some aspects of Tetris that will rub people the wrong way, such as the lack of layered characters or the utter abuse of the wire-tapping trope or the abundance of industry patois that goes unexplained. But all of these cliches and flaws only add to the vibe of a movie that feels like it could’ve actually been made in the ‘80s. And for a film that doesn’t wield a lot of pop culture references or technologies from that era, it sure feels like it’s set 35 years ago without needing to go full-on Stranger Things.
Tetris doesn’t push the needle of either the political drama genre or biopic category, but it does tell a fun and interesting story about the most popular video game in history in a fun and interesting way. If all of our cinematic true stories were handled with such energy, I wouldn’t complain an 8-bit.
Twizard Rating: 93
Originally published at Popzara.com