If ever was a story about licensing rights that deserved the “based on a true story” treatment Tetris. Figuring out who can legally distribute a game may sound like a boring legal discrepancy, but when that game was developed in Russia just before the fall of the Soviet Union, the quest to secure those rights was a real-life political thriller, perfect fodder for cinematic drama. Watch director Jon S. Baird’s Tetrisbut those pieces just don’t fall into place.
Tetrisout today Apple TV+, explores this complex legal history through the perspective of Henk Rogers (played by Taron Egerton). In the 1980s, the game designer and entrepreneur fell under the spell of the game after playing it at a trade show. He went to Russia to secure the rights to the game – a move that saw him confront businessman Robert Stein (Toby Jones), publishing titan Robert Maxwell, and even the KGB. Ultimately, it’s his ability to connect with Tetris developer Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) who allows him to secure the game and bring it to a bajillion Game Boys, but until then everything involves more twists and legal terms than one can imagine.
If this sounds like something you could watch a two-hour YouTube video essay on without pausing once, it is. And if you’re looking for a streamlined dramatized version of that story, Tetris supplies. But the film is also somewhat undermined by its struggle to portray certain nuances. Sometimes it falls into a rather superficial world view of ‘capitalism good, communism bad’. This isn’t necessarily due to a failure of character development – there are plenty of capitalist villains out there too. But some of the Soviet characters come across as only slightly more fleshed out than Tim Curry escapes the only place that has not been corrupted by capitalism.
This dynamic is only made weirder by the inclusion of multiple Soviet officials who appear to be true patriots. Which aspect of the communist Soviet Union they believe in or why they do what they do boils down to “I want the best for my country.” And while there is a good moral argument that Pajitnov should be able to benefit from his creation – or even just live safely – there is little to contradict this idea. Who wouldn’t agree?
This is probably due more to the nature of history than to the failure of writing. As the film makes clear, in the last years of the Soviet Union there were greedy opportunists who cut off territory during a government collapse. This is not the era to look to if you are interested in a thorough examination of opposing economic systems. But a side effect is that Soviet characters come across as completely corrupt or naively committed to a dying ideology.
This simplistic view undercuts some of the film’s real tensions. It is rarely ambiguous who are the good guys or the bad guys. Heroes like Henk and Alexey are serious and noble, the greedy executives are less framed Jordan Belford and more like Thanos. It’s not a bad story in itself, but for a movie full of complex legal and political nuances, these often flat characterizations are a little less than satisfying.