Oh, I’ve seen Tenet. Twice, actually. Because we’re doing our bit to keep those movie theatres in business!
It’s an interesting movie which comes at an interesting point in history. We’ve been hearing bits and pieces about Tenet since last year, and it was always well-anticipated, given that it’s the latest thing by celebrated filmmaker Christopher Nolan.
But since then, it’s been elevated massively by being the first big-budget mainstream film to be released since the whole COVID-19 crisis really took hold. Indeed, some say it’s the movie that much of the industry is banking on to keep theatrical cinemas alive as a viable movie-viewing option.
And now it’s out! At least, it is in Australia and some other places. But does it live up to the hype? Could anything?
Some Spoilers ahead!
Well, for the most part, it does. Tenet isn’t the best Christopher Nolan film, but it’s still good. And let’s face it, even an average Christopher Nolan film is still a pretty good film. And Tenet is pretty much everything you’d want or could reasonably hope for in a Christopher Nolan film.
First, it’s big. The story, the concepts, the locations, the set pieces…everything is huge, epic and expansive.
Next, it’s loud. When the Protagonist (for that is what the movie calls him) starts beating people up in a kitchen, his punches sound like cannons going off. The whole climax of the movie includes one relentless wall of noise. My kids said their ears felt funny when they came out of the movie, and I can see why.
Next, it’s complex. Let’s be clear–this is not a big, loud dumb movie. It’s a smart one–for the most part, it’s smarter than we are. I don’t mean that the movie is tricking us–I mean that the movie is presenting complex information in a complex way. For most people, you will get what you need to by just watching it once–key things like the characters, stakes and motivations are all clear. But there is so much more detail than that to what is going on that for sure repeated viewings will be required to pick it all up.
And what’s more, it’s deep. I don’t mean spiritually deep, necessarily, although that is arguably relevant. I mean that the movie is immersive. All the bigness, all the loudness, all the complexity–it’s all supported by Christopher Nolan’s ability to firmly plant us inside an environment, inside a set-piece. I don’t always understand the bigger picture of what is going on, but I’m right there with the characters, experiencing what they are experiencing, every second of the way.
And in general, it’s super-interesting. The concept of the film is that there is someone in the future who has invented the ability to “invert” a person or object, so it starts to travel backwards in time. Inverted weapons are being sent back in a slow moving dropbox to arms dealer Andrei Sator, who is busy collecting all the pieces of the technology that will allow him to invert the entire world. The explanations for all this are pretty spurious (the future doesn’t like what we’ve done with the environment and they don’t think destroying the past will cause them any problems. Sator himself is a dying and broken man who is dying who wants to destroy everything along with him) but the realization of it all is amazing to see. Bullets fly out of walls, people fight other people who are moving backwards (and who turn out to be themselves later on), cars right themselves after accidents and join in high speed chases, conversations take on different meanings when listened to in the opposite order…it’s fascinating. Mesmerizing, even.
But that’s not to say it’s perfect. There is so much attention given and work devoted to exploring the concept that depth of character is lost a bit. Christopher Nolan’s work has always been subject to criticisms of being cold and remote, but Tenet is even more so. The heroes of the film–Neil (Robert Pattinson), Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and the unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington–son of Denzel)–are all performed well but don’t engender legitimate sympathy or emotional investment. Ironically, the most “alive” character of them all is actually the villain, played by Kenneth Branagh. He is really outstanding in the role of jaded arms dealer Andrei Sator, a man who is both pitiable and terrifying. I don’t know if Branagh shone so strongly because he was written that way on purpose, or because he’s just a good enough actor to punch through the veneer that is created by all the attention given to the movie’s concept.
And while the concept is engaging, it also requires a huge amount of exposition and suspension of disbelief to completely accept. Indeed, near the start of the film, the Protagonist meets two separate characters who are only there to provide exposition (three if you count a cameo by Michael Caine). They each get one long scene of telling or showing our hero stuff, and then they are gone from the movie completely. Even after that, there is a lot more that needs explaining all the way through–a process that is hindered by having some of these conversations take place on loud, fast moving boats in the ocean, or by having the characters wear oxygen masks while they speak, or by other hindrances to clear articulation.
And I can’t say I am completely confident that everything going on here actually makes sense. For example, I’m not sure why damage sustained by a forward moving car would “undo” itself just because it was caused by something else that was moving backwards. Or how all the business works with a backwards-moving Sator causing a forward moving car to explode. Or why in some parts of the movie, there seem to only be one or two of these “temporal stiles” (the machine that allows them to invert a person or object) around but at other times there are enough to invert whole armies. Or why in the world anyone would think hiding something “in the past” would be all that secure (although the more I think about that one, the more maybe it makes sense, since inverting an object essentially must cause it to vanish in the present).
But I’m willing to admit that the movie may well be smarter than I am, and that if I was willing to watch it a few more times, it might all make sense. To compare it to another classic Nolan film, Inception–I think that while there are things in Inception that will always be left to interpretation, Tenet it’s all meant to actually work together logically, if you can just understand it.
But even with all that confusion, it doesn’t take way from how undeniably cool the movie is, and how much fun it is especially now to see such a vast production on the big screen. Really, it’s the first film I’ve watched that made me think that IMAX would really be worth it. I hope it succeeds. I hope the big screen movie-viewing experience continues to be a thing. Sure, a lot of it will be taken up by enjoyable but formulaic material like we get from Marvel. And a lot of other movie will be films that you could watch perfectly satisfactorily at home in front of your TV, computer or phone.
But there’s something special about getting out to a darkened theatre to see someone’s audio-visual storytelling vision come to life. And as long as guys like Christopher Nolan are doing their thing, telling interesting stories in interesting ways–even stories that are completely original like this one is–then there will be stuff that’s worth getting out there for.