As younger Gen-Xers and elder Millennials gray into the nostalgia of middle age, it only makes sense that they should want to revisit the tokens of their upbringing in film form. We are also living in an era of innovation worship: a get-rich-quick hustlerism has trickled out of Silicon Valley and into the social feeds, and aspirations, of millions of Americans. 

Thus we get a movie like Tetris (AppleTV+, March 31), which follows the circuitous route that the maddeningly addictive Russian video game took to the international market. The film, from director Jon S. Baird and writer Noah Pink, has many of the trappings of disruptor nostalgia, from old-time video game graphics employed as title cards to a sentimental framing of high-flying business deals. It all begins irksomely, with lots of bluster and aren’t-we-smart industry jargon, but gradually finds its footing as a sort of diplomatic thriller with a shaggy sweetness at its heart.

There is an actually interesting story here, one involving the crumbling, corrupt U.S.S.R. of the mid-late 1980s, both wary of and susceptible to the financial temptations of the West. Taron Egerton, he of the earnest twinkle, plays Henk Rogers, a Dutch-American video game designer and licenser living in Japan. He’s gotten wind of Tetris early, and is scrambling about trying to secure rights for the game on a variety of platforms—home computers, video game consoles, arcade machines, and eventually handheld devices like the Nintendo Game Boy. 

Remember the Game Boy? Tetris (the movie) trusts that you do, and quite fondly. The film is keenly interested in getting to the root of that treasured reminiscence, showing us the former objects of our fascination just as they were stumbling out into the world. Everything has an origin story, of course, though so much technology these days seems to suddenly exist in the world unsourced, as if the velocity of human progress has just spontaneously whipped it into being.

Tetris pays homage to Rogers’s steadfast campaign, while also showing us the more noxious side of the power grab in which he’s involved. The negative comes in the form of shifty media mogul Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his weaselly son, Kevin (Anthony Boyle), who are willing to bribe and bully their way to Tetris exclusivity. (No mention is made of Maxwell’s most infamous child, Ghislaine.) 

The Maxwells represent the bad sort of capitalism, what the Russians are meant to be appropriately suspicious of. Rogers stands in for a more ethical variety, one that really is just about rewarding brilliance and hard work. The Russian characters in the film have their own moral balance, with Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov) painted as honorable and industrious and yearning to live free and fruitful in a post-Soviet reality. A venal apparatchik played by Igor Grabuzov stands testament to the rotten opportunism of Perestroika. 

There is nothing emotionally significant about a puzzle video game, nor is the pursuit of wealth all that stirring. Still, Tetris manages to wring something approaching meaning out of this fast-moving story. I suppose the movie is really about the fault line between two significant global ages, about the powers of money and globalism subsuming what was left of a tattered Russian dream. The times are indeed a’changing in Tetris, and that rush—its dizziness and excitement, its dread too—is deftly evoked in the film’s best moments. Egerton sells us on Rogers’s sincere passion, and he has an easy chemistry with Yefremov—Rogers and Pajitnov are beginning what will become a lifelong friendship. Tetris is an amiable (and probably overstated) movie about a weird happening in tech history.

It’s a more broadly appealing film than another tech-origin film, BlackBerry, which premiered this month at the SXSW film festival and will open in theaters later this year. As the title suggests, BlackBerry is about the rise and fall of the Canadian cellphone manufacturer, which helped launch the smartphone era before being crushed by it. 


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