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Tetris (SXSW)

"Good ideas have no borders."

At SXSW, I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere of "Tetris," the new AppleTV+ movie starring Taron Egerton as software programmer and salesman Henk Rogers. Rogers and inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov) were responsible for bringing the video game Tetris to countries outside the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. While many of us grew up playing the game via Nintendo's handheld Game Boy, many don't know it was a Soviet product that was negotiated outside of the hands of Communists.

But, the story of how Tetris got into the hands of Americans and other residents outside the USSR is on full display in the thriller "Tetris," embarking on a journey that might be unknown to most of the world.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Egerton about his role at the festival's premiere, to which he acknowledged being more of a Pokémon guy. However, his enthusiasm for debuting this new film was evident. He was noticeably excited about telling Rogers' and Pajitnov's story at a time of great division with Russia and the rest of the world.

Directed by Jon S. Baird, "Tetris" plays out like a suspenseful dramedy rather than the biographical film it tries to be. We get a glimpse of Henk Rogers' life as he discovers the game of Tetris at a convention and quickly attempts to acquire the licensing rights to the game. Unfortunately, there are obstacles in his path, notably from other interested parties like Mirrorsoft and Atari, but he strikes a deal to partner with Nintendo. Each company claims a stake in the game, whether through arcades, handheld, game consoles, or computers. Rogers needs a sign-off from the Soviet Union to distribute outside Communist rule, which proves difficult with each passing minute.

When the Dutch-born, American-raised, and Japan-living Rogers first arrives in the Soviet Union, he is met with pushback almost immediately by the Russian government. He learns very fast about how companies are arranged in the country, as the government oversees all operations and claims all rights to games regardless of their commercial value. Capitalism doesn't have a home here, nor does Rogers, who is unwelcome in a country he keeps pushing his way into despite numerous threats to his and his family's lives. But in dealing with government representatives, the onion that is the ongoing Tetris negotiations begins to peel away until Rogers accomplishes his goal.

Taron Egerton is exceptional in the role of Henk Rogers, defining the risks the real Rogers took. Charming without needing to be, Egerton embodies Rogers with ease and intelligence. He could have played the role of a slick car salesman type but refrained from doing so by leaning on his fellow actors to play up those clichés. He makes the character believable in a premise based on true events. Egerton helps to bring the nostalgia of the first handheld video game that many Millennials and Generation Xers might find comfort in learning more about. Baird assists by having the film jump around quite a bit from the USSR, Tokyo, Seattle, and London.

Speaking to the real Henk Rogers before the movie premiered in Austin, he confided in me that he views "Tetris" as a thriller on steroids. After viewing the film, I have to politely disagree. Even though "Tetris" stands on its own as a worthwhile thriller that floods with sentimentality, it's more of a comedy of errors within the real negotiations between farcical billionaires and Rogers as the regular dude who stumbled upon a great product. But it's his chemistry with Alexey that marks some of the best sequences in the film, although "Tetris" is more focused on Egerton's performance than Nikita Yefremov's.

"Tetris" is a lesson in the ultimate corporate espionage exercise and deals with themes of capitalism vs. communism. The events depicted in this film loom large for today's audience, as we are constantly bombarded with Russia's dominance some 35 years later. In a country where anyone can be KGB and major corporations are fighting for a piece of greatness, it's challenging to tell an authentic story about a secretive institutional government. "Tetris" is a well-executed thriller that dutifully explains who owns what and when. It's a complex web of deceit and business tactics that comes with a happy ending, even if Rogers has to fight for it with every ounce of dignity he has.

Ticket Rating: 🎟🎟🎟🎟


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