Tetris Original 2023 Movie Review by Teally Fox
As a lifelong lover of documentaries, I have a pretty ingrained fondness for their peppy little offshoot, the biopic. There is something just a little more satisfying about a plot line when you know the roots are anchored in reality and the resolution was the result of natural progression over a desire for optimistic story-telling . Even when there are only subtle hints of realism, surrounded by caricatures of the source material, and events are exaggerated to create added tension, I tend to find it just a skosh more enjoyable knowing that at least part of it is true. I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what happened throughout the entire time I experienced Tetris, and experience really is the only way to describe my initial viewing. I was the perfect age to take part in the Tetris craze when it was released in America in the late 80’s. To this day I have incredibly fond and vivid memories of tackling those tiny tricky tetrominos, trying to tower to the top of a GameBoy screen to Tanaka’s jaunty tune.
The tale of how this communist created video game came to be licensed worldwide is one heck of a wild ride. I never thought I’d be raving that bureaucratic processes and legal restrictions can be as thrilling and adventurous as a 007 or Indian Jones film, but here I am about to do just that. I swear if this movie came out 40 years earlier and Roger Moore was still Bonding around during the Dalton years, we could all still be listening to Shirley Bassey sing about tetrads and licensing rights, not just the man with the Midas touch. Surprisingly, Tetris has a lot going for it besides nostalgia (though I will admit it does seem to rely heavily on the audience's sentimentality for the gripping game). For starters the casting of Taron Egerton as Japan based businessman Henk Rogers and Nikita Yefremov as Russian computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov make every scene they are in a joy to watch. This was my first real exposure to both (I’m not going to count voicing a gorilla in Sing) and now I’m looking forward to diving into both their prior works. Egerton’s excitement, passion, and dogged determination along with Yefremov’s stoicism mixed with a hint of trepidation are what really sell the story and maintain interest throughout the events that unfold. Honestly, the rest of the cast could pretty much be swapped out for other actors (not to say they had poor performances, just not a lot to do) because they ultimately are all just playing caricatures and stereotypes of how the actual individuals were meant to be portrayed. The most obvious example is that of Igor Grabuzov playing the part of Valentin Trifonov, the corrupt head of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His character feels like every villain in every thriller to come out in the 80’s and 90’s, but it somehow adds to the charm of the story by keeping it lighter and more fun than edge of your seat sinister and frightening.
The next thing Tetris definitely gets right is atmosphere. A medley of techniques goes into providing the audience with the vibe and tension of the late 80’s. First the screenplay is from writer Noah Pink, 40, putting him in the right age range to have actual memories of this time in world history. His age during that time frame actually helps to explain the exaggerated mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of the characters as they are those of quintessential 80’s/90’s action thrillers. If they had been written more realistically it would take away from the feeling that this movie is of another time and make the characters feel out of place. As it stands, one of Tetris’s biggest assets is the feeling of immersion not only into the year of the events taking place, but cinema and gameplay of the time. At times it very much feels like you’re watching War Games or Cloak & Dagger.
While it may feel somewhat gimmicky, a visual choice I thoroughly enjoyed throughout the film is the pixelated animations. I know it may come across as cliche using pixelated graphics in a video game movie, but if you grew up in a time of 16 bit graphics and PC games on floppy disks, it feels like you're in a game of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego. This transition is used appropriately when flipping from country to country and helps clear up any confusion concerning where the current scene is taking place as well as serve as the introduction of new characters. Ultimately this makes the entire movie feel like a journey through a game, and I’m here for it.
Lastly, I don’t think anything helps to capture the mood of the 80’s and tension of the story more than the soundtrack and score. I loved the continuity of using the Japanese and Russian language versions of Holding Out for a Hero to sandwich the action and heighten the excitement between the beginning and end of the film. That coupled with the use of The Final Countdown in the club scene, serve to help unify the characters and even though it may be a little obvious and tropey, to highlight the characters’ similarities through music, in this situation it’s enjoyable and frankly works. And it’s not just the recognizable songs but the twists on the instrumental tracks from the score that keep the audience grounded in the video game world. The game tracks are tweaked just enough to hint at game play without the impish ridiculousness of simply using the original game score (no offense to Hirokazu Tanaka, his compositions on Tetris, Metroid and more are legendary).
All in all, I had a really good time with Tetris and would definitely recommend it to anyone with an adoration for either Tetris the game or espionage thrillers in general. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but doesn’t go completely off the rails either, landing firmly in the realm of camp and quirk.
Tetris, biopic, documentary, GameBoy, nostalgia, licensing rights, Taron Egerton, Nikita Yefremov, Henk Rogers, Alexey Pajitnov, 80s atmosphere, Noah Pink, pixelated animations, 16-bit graphics, Carmen Sandiego, soundtrack, espionage thriller, camp, quirk.
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