Biographies are all the rage nowadays. Well, technically, it has been consistently popular because people just love to watch what they already know on the big or small screen. And even if they don’t know about a certain topic, if it’s presented in an understandable fashion, they absolutely lap it up. But there’s a big fat line between making an understandable biopic and a biopic that makes for an entertaining viewing experience. The former is usually a visual interpretation of the subject’s Wikipedia page, while the latter pushes you into the life of the subject and makes you see the world from their perspective. Thankfully, “Tetris” is synonymous with the second kind of biopic, as it bubbles with energy, colors, and character work without sacrificing the nuances of the politics and business around international copyrights.
Directed by Jon S. Baird, “Tetris” is about the invention of the titular game and who was responsible for circulating it all around the world. It largely follows game developer Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton), who lives in Tokyo with his wife Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi) and three children, out of whom Maya (Kanon Narumi) plays a pivotal role. He comes across the game at an expo and tracks its inventor, who is sitting all the way in the USSR, named Alexey (Nikita Efremov). Henk thinks he is simply going to buy the rights from them and sell them to Nintendo. But that’s when he runs into a plethora of problems. He learns that Alexey doesn’t own the rights to the game he has made; the government does, which is being closely monitored by the KGB. There’s a British gaming company called Mirrorsoft, which is run by Robert (Roger Allam) and Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle), that’s vying to get the rights to Tetris. And between all this, there’s Robert Stein (Toby Jones), who wants to make a killing by selling the game to any party that agrees to his demands.
It’s fair to say that the politics of “Tetris” are convoluted because you have Japan, the USSR, the USA, the British, and Germany in a hotpot. You have communism clashing with capitalism. Due to the structure of the story, the communists are portrayed as the villains here because they don’t want to be sellouts, and the capitalists as the heroes because they are “liberating” an inventor from the shackles of tyranny. And if you see all this while sitting in this era of hyper-capitalism and with the knowledge that present-day Russia is committing all kinds of crimes against humanity, things get all the more confusing. On top of that, the constant legal to-and-fro between Bullet-Proof Software, Mirrorsoft, Nintendo, SEGA, Atari, and the KGB can get overwhelming. However, Pink’s focus on the nature of these characters, whether they are honest or dishonest, and what the rights to the game actually mean to each of these characters helps you cut through the business-oriented stuff and invest in the thrill of the race to the finish line (which is the USSR airport). Now, before you say that that sounds like a standard biopic, let’s talk about the visuals and sounds of “Tetris.”
Director Jon S. Baird, composer Lorne Balfe, cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler, editors Colin Goudie, Ben Mills, and Martin Walsh, production designer Daniel Taylor, and the art direction, set decoration, costume design, make-up, sound design, special effects, and visual effects departments have done a stunning job right here. They’ve done justice to the ’80s period setting, and there’s no doubt about that. But they’ve clearly gone above and beyond by evoking the sensation of playing a 4-bit or 8-bit game. So, whenever a character travels from one place to another, you get an animated plane going from one end of the map to another. Usually, movies and television series show the exterior of a building to establish where the characters are. In “Tetris,” entire buildings are recreated in pixelated graphics, some of which even have the camera moving through 3D space. There are points where, instead of realistic foley, you get iconic sounds from Nintendo games for the footsteps and even plot revelations. And to alternate between actual (or maybe CGI) footage of the concluding car chase and a Gameboy version of it, occasionally turning the cars into animated ones, as a Russian edition of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” plays loudly, is nothing short of genius.
No doubt, Taron Egerton is one of the most talented actors, and it is truly insane that he isn’t one of the biggest superstars yet. I know, I know, he’s just 33 years old right now, and he has a long way to go. But look at the variety of work he has done in this short period of time; with most of them being biopics. Eddie Edwards in “Eddie the Eagle,” Elton John in “Rocketman,” “Jimmy Keene” in “Black Bird,” and now Henk Rogers in “Tetris.” And every single one of those performances is so different from one another, and he plays them like he’s taking a walk in the park. Yet, for some reason, he doesn’t end up getting the attention he deserves. Well, I am rooting for him. The rest of the cast of “Tetris” is phenomenal. Nikita Efremov, Oleg Stefan, Roger Allam, Anthony Boyle, Ayane Nagabuchi, Igor Grabuzov, Greg Kolpakchi, Sofya Lebedeva, and the ever-dependable Toby Jones knock it out of the park every time they are on the screen. They are undoubtedly backed by some amazing writing and direction. Still, they definitely elevate the text with their acting chops. The rest of the supporting cast, who appear for even a split-second, deserves a shout-out as well because, without them, the movie wouldn’t have felt so lived-in and vibrant.
I didn’t expect myself to begin crying while watching a movie about “Tetris.” But the beautifully lit and composed shot of Henk and Akemi watching their daughter Maya perform for them really got to me. That moment genuinely made me hit the pause button regarding my thoughts about whether this movie is pro-capitalism or anti-communism and allowed me to relish the humanity coursing through the film. Because at the end of the day, stories about heroes, especially ones with families, aren’t necessarily about changing the world or saving it from eternal doom. It’s about being there with your loved ones during their most important points in life and fulfilling the promises that you’ve made. In addition to all that, “Tetris” is a brilliantly made film. It’s a shame that this isn’t being shown in theaters because it deserves the big-screen treatment. Anyway, since it’s available on your small screens, do give it a watch and maybe play your favorite handheld console game from your childhood.