REVIEW: "Tetris" hits an Iron Curtain-sized wall

Tetris is a game of simple, clean lines. Part of its pleasure derives from its cogent mathematics: make a line with a series of shapes that are all made of four segmentations. Its name itself is a portmanteau of Tetra (latin for four) and tennis, the inventor's favorite sport; also a game of succinctness with infinite permutations.

Tetris the movie, by contrast, is a convoluted mess. A charming mess, but still a mess. It deliberately invokes the shadowed world of Cold War three-dimensional chess by playing upon the era's multi-directional stereotyping, yet this no doubt purposeful formal choice has diminishing returns. Though Jon S. Baird's film purports to model itself on eight-bit video game aesthetics, it really only rests on a series of vapid iconography, and wastes the potential of a seriously strange story.

Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) is a Dutch-born American video game developer living in Japan with his wife (Ayane Nagabuchi) and their daughters. Together they run Bullet-Proof Software, which, through a series of fortuitous failures, secures the publishing rights for Tetris across all platforms in Japan. Or, so they think. It turns out that those rights really belong to the German Robert Stein (Toby Jones) and his company Andromeda, itself in cahoots with a British company by the name of Mirror Group, which is helmed by the towering Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), a close personal friend of Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh). As Rogers desperately tries to sort out who's who, he becomes embroiled in a bizarre, escalating game of capitalism, even as he befriends Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov), the inventor of the game.

If the intention of Baird's film is to ironically play with the paper-thin depiction of Russians and communism so endemic to the time period, it's worth asking why. The film looks reliably like 1980s neon, but invoking these stylings and overly simplified political leanings doesn't really do much in the way of bringing new light to the cold war. It both glorifies capitalism and castigates victims of Gorbachev's, while eschewing any fidelity to the game of Tetris itself.

Egerton, meanwhile, is miscast. He's a good actor but not entirely believable as a man in desperate need of a victory, his boyish and cherubic face constantly overriding whatever lines might be forming beneath his sleep-deprived eyes. That's partly the fault of screenwriter Noah Pink, to be sure, whose script vacillates between maximalist corporate espionage and sober political critique without much success in either category, and it sits uncomfortably between these polarities. There's a strange disconnect between the intention of using video game formalism and the content of the scenes themselves, which are slavishly devoted to narrative. The real-life story is wildly fascinating but Baird and Pink splinter it at the seams; instead of sticking with Egerton's Rogers as he doggedly pursues a capital victory, the team seems too concerned with rendering everyone's journey. And that's a strange choice considering the game at the center, which is quite famously only played alone and escalates in speed the more you play it. Tetris hits an Iron Curtain sized wall the minute it moves its plot to Moscow; the pacing is off and the story is hard to follow. Further the earnest attempt to make the story crackle with the weight of Cold War backstabbing and sleuthing is frankly quite silly since this is, after all, about a video game. Baird fails to make us feel like there's anything at stake; why should we care who gets the distribution rights?

And yet it must be said the movie really, really sticks the landing. In a final act reminiscent of Ben Affleck's Argo (2012), Egerton and representatives from Nintendo race through the streets of Moscow on the run from the KGB and make it to the airport and on a flight back home. It's a wild final sequence, and one of the few which marries Baird's aesthetic intentions with the natural tension of being stuck on the wrong side of the authorities. One wishes that cohesiveness was applied to the first ninety minutes of the movie, or even that there was a stronger attempt at emulating the game with which it shares a name. While playing the game at its highest level, Tetris can't keep up with its own pace.