Is it just me or is the Bonnie Tyler song “Holding out for a Hero” becoming overused in films? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song that gets the blood pumping the second the climatic action sequence kicks into overdrive and the protagonist makes one last ditch effort to stop the bad guy from winning. The more the song gets used, the less of an effect it has in the scenes, however, give credit where credit is mostly due – the copyright holder who owns the sound recording has expertly placed this piece of music all over, securing a legacy for the songs writers Jim Steinman and Dean Pitchford.
Sometimes it pays to be a music industry professional with knowledge of music publishing and sync licensing.
But this review isn’t about one over played song, although it’s used in two different sequences in Tetris. Despite my unapologetic apathy for hearing “Holding out for a Hero” in yet another film, when it pops up in Tetris, the song fits the film like the proverbial 4 block shape that fills the last remaining space completely and gives the oddly satisfying flashing motion for the group of remaining blocks the signal to move downward.
This review instead will follow the events that inspired the film version of Tetris is based on. And like the poster says, “The game you couldn’t put down, the story you couldn’t make up” perfectly epitomizes how the rights of an 8-bit game created and developed by Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) during the decline of the Soviet Union was thrust into a 3-way bidding war behind the Iron Curtain. The players include Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) on behalf of Nintendo, Robert Stein (Toby Jones), and Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and son Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle) for Mirrorsoft.
Once the players of this game are introduced and the globetrotting setting gets underway, director Jon S. Baird off a screenplay written by Noah Pink thrust you right in the heat of the action, following Henk and his unrelenting determination to deliver this simple yet brilliant game to the world, securing the rights to distribute. What stars off as a promising endeavor proves more tedious due to the Soviet Unions extreme measure to keep Russian created entertainment secret within their borders. Though Pink and Baird take us around the globe, the story itself remains very much contained as if we’re in a game – with each scene and level unlocked, the walls close in on the group of individuals, creating a suffocating atmosphere, one that’s inescapable from.
Anyone who has spent hours a day playing Tetris during this new era of videogameswill understand the obsessive hold the game has on people. Its addicting to all who play but don’t let its basic structure fool you. With increased level comes skill and the 4-block shape tetrominoes become increasingly more difficult to find an open space. Anyone who has obsessed over this game will also confirm how one bad block placement can end a session in less than 5 seconds. Like the true facts given at the end of the fictionalized version, it can’t be denied that Tetris is one of the greatest videogames of all time.
Both Noah Pink and Jon S. Baird must have been superfans of Tetris at one point, breaking up the increasing tension that steadily builds on itself are highly stylized 8-bit chapter introductions that constantly pushes the narrative forward to its ultimate conclusion. The nostalgia factor will immediately transport players back in time, falling blocks will be everywhere you look. Within that, Henk as the main protagonist goes through rushes of highs and lows, 1 step forward and 2 steps back. But Henk’s tenacity never allows him to give up and walk away and in a sense Taron Egerton fits the mold.
When both Henk and Alexey are the focus, the story gets settled into finding a comfortability amidst the chaos. Their rocky start of a relationship quickly becomes the backbone of Tetris. As the two game developers spend more time together, it’s their bond over the game that pushes Tetris from a standard biopic with some standout scenes into one of the best surprises of the year.
There’s a clear and constant struggle from some on the Soviet side – some wish to keep the political landscape the way it is while others recognize times are changing and decide to be on the right side of history. Pink adds layers to every scene and sequence, building tension until it can’t be contained any longer on several fronts. Coming in at a hair under 2 hours, Baird packs a punch with the pacing of his film. The 8-bit transitions from chapter to chapter or in this case level to level feels refreshing, providing a visual feast among the polished yet grayed out tone of the Soviet Union.
During the height of the 3rd act there comes a moment within the climactic sequence where the use of the 8-bit animation style loses its appeal, pushing it to being overused just like the use of Bonnie Tyler’s song, taking the player out of the gripping moment of intensity happening in the real world.
2023 has been more than favorable to videogame adapted stories. There may be a light at the end of a dark tunnel finally. With Tetris, the argument gets stronger that the right combination has been unlocked with more on the horizon to be translated from console to big or small screen. Harnessing its 90’s nostalgia and its love for games will delight anyone whether they played the game or not. Taron Egerton’s charm and gusto lead the way but it’s the players that make up the ensemble cast that fill out the intrigue to dig deeper into this story. The game is iconic and now the story behind it is immortalized.
Screenplay By: Noah Pink
Directed By: Jon S. Baird
Music By: Lorne Balfe
Cinematography: Alwin H. Küchler
Starring: Taron Egerton, Nikita Efremov, Sofya Lebedeva, Anthony Boyle, Toby Jones, Roger Allam, Togo Igawa, Ben Miles
Where to Watch: Apple TV +
Edited By: Martin Walsh, Colin Goudie & Ben Mills
Release Date: March 31, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 58 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 81%