So there I was, literally shuffling up to the ticket kiosk, trying not to breathe too heavily. I’m gonna be real with you: sparkling ICE drinks are not meant to be stored in sweater sleeves, and boxes of Milk Duds don’t fit great in waistbands; you WILL get funny looks if every step you take rattles legions of M&Ms and Skittles in their crinkly packages. It was my first time being back inside a movie theater in seven months, and despite the empty lobby, it still felt like an endeavor. Oh, pro tip: always bring your +1; you can take twice the amount of snacks (it’s science).
Once I was nestled into the faux leather recliner with high blood sugar in each cup holder, I was immediately glad to be back. Despite the vast availability of digital movies at our fingertips, there is a feeling of an “event” when sitting down in front of a 50-foot-wide screen. Due to low attendance, COVID-19 regulations impacted the experience minimally. Spacing out over the theater was already a staple of the experience, and, at this point, the feeling of a mask is almost an afterthought. When it comes down to it, going back was like slipping into an old glove. The experience hasn’t changed, which includes the guarantee there will be at least one person on their phone with the sound on (we have all fallen so far from God’s light).
But enough of that fan fluff. Let’s get to the real review. What did I watch? Despite the film coming out over a month ago (and seeing its physical release soon), I thought it would be appropriate to hop in and see Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” the flagbearer of an industry stirring from a slumber. I will attempt to navigate a summary without spoiling major plot points. The film follows “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), a CIA agent who gets caught up in global events involving an arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) plotting global destruction. A variety of side characters, like Robert Pattinson’s mysterious Neil and Elizabeth Debicki’s compelling Kat, all add intrigue to the race against time. Sounds cliche? Well, you aren’t wrong, but Nolan heard you and responded with a resounding “HERE, have some time-bending shenanigans.” The concept of “introversion” is promptly introduced, the idea that an object’s direction through time can be reversed while everything else around it continues as normal. Holes will seemingly spit out bullets only to be caught in the gun that fired them. Piles of rubble will pull detritus up into itself to form a complete structure. Don’t get me started when characters start to “invert” themselves and start moving backwards through time and space. It’s a pulpy story dressed up in a sleek, smartly directed coat of stage paint.
And, to skip the semantics, it’s glorious. The acting is committed, the cinematography is sharp and informative and the visuals are engaging on multiple levels. An action packed moment excites the primal and the intellectual, leaving one to ponder how that “sick ‘splosion” even happened. While it starts slow, the layers start stacking up, adding on and then pulling back to reveal another sequence of underlying events. It was a feeling of discovery so rarely done competently in film. Go see it, hopefully in theaters, and hopefully in IMAX, because this film just screams to be “experienced.”
That is not to say the movie is all visual thrills. Signature to Nolan’s previous work, there is an understanding of both film and storytelling as a medium. He references other films like his own “Memento” and “Inception” through the nonlinear storytelling and kinetic visuals but is aware of other hallmarks of the genre. Neil’s time traveling arc, without spoiling too much, sports parallels to Kyle Reese in “The Terminator,” and I would be remiss without mentioning the movie “starting before the start” in true Tarantino-esque style.
And even akin to a classic stage play, a protagonist (literally) enters to confront the antagonist, and like Clytemnestra in the Greek Tragedy “Agamemnon,” the wife who is subjugated by an ambivalent and violent husband retaliates in bloody fashion. There is a clear rising action, climactic final conflict and resolution. Further so, the manipulation of time connects with contemporary understanding of narrative. Like hitting the -30 seconds on a streaming service or the reverse button on a DVD, the characters of our given entertainment go back and forth through the narrative. Effectively, they are at the starting line and, through the use of technology, rush toward each other only to stop and head the other direction. It’s repeatedly stated in the film that an event has “already happened,” and it will always happen. “Tenet” has already been acted, filmed and pressed to film. It has “happened,” and we just need to go back and forth through our perception of it.
Look, I don’t claim to be the sharpest butter knife in a drawer of butter knives, but I’ve watched enough thrillers to spot the occasional bit of bull***. The majority of the concepts are as fleshed out as a popcorn flick can muster, but cracks appear. However, it retorts with such charisma that I can’t fault it for being conceptually imperfect. It is so dedicated to the concepts it introduces that when a problem does appear, it throws another three ideas at the audience like a distracting smoke bomb and moves on. “Normal air” can’t interact with an inverted person’s lungs you say? Here is a mask. Wait, if you shoot a bullet going backwards into a wall that’s going forward, does that mean the wall has always had that bullet embedded in it? Ummm, somebody get me a coffee while I film a reverse car chase. In that respect, it is the smartest “dumb movie” I have seen in some time. In the end, enough of the ideas line up to be cohesive, leaving the loose threads to the inevitable ambiguity of time manipulation in storytelling.
That is not to say the film was a flawless execution. To begin, “Tenet” was admittedly hard to approach. An overly complex first act complete with choppy jumps will benefit the return viewer but simply distracts the first time through. There is simply so much plot vomited at the audience over the leading 40 minutes to be enjoyable by itself. While an unsubstantiated thought, I would guess that there was probably close to 30 or 40 minutes of footage that got left on the cutting room floor (the majority of which fleshed out the beginning). The theatrical edit works to start building up momentum, but speed and confusion will only ever lead to puking out of the car window. My second time viewing was much more engaging when I saw where the strings all led, but it’s worth mentioning regardless.
Also, as was noted by a plethora of critical reviews, the sound experience was… something. It goes without saying that Nolan has a vision for the audio landscape, approaching the iconic Hans Zimmer project after project to create surreal and booming atmospheres. Here, the talented Ludwig Göransson, famous for scoring films like “Fruitvale Station,” “Venom” and Disney’s “The Mandalorian,” slips into the well-worn shoes. And to be fair, he does an excellent job crafting a synth mix of brass and strings, even if it feels a bit derivative of Zimmer. However, while “Tenet” boasts excellent acting and a moving score, it’s in the combination where it gets rough. Simply, there were too many moments where I COULDN’T HEAR A THING. My eyes may have been gorging themselves on the explosions and time bending visuals, but my ears were straining to pick out even scraps of words between hits of booming bass. For a film that relies heavily on exposition and oral world-building, it was a labor to listen to at times.
But nitpicks aside, “Tenet” represents more than a single line on a decorated director’s resume. Be it intentional or simply an unfortunate coincidence, the film was one of a select few to be on the frontline of theaters reopening. While the future of cinema looks grim with major chains like AMC still expecting massive losses and closing dozens of locations, the industry needed a strong restart. As a result, Nolan’s ambitious film is responsible for more than recouping its own budget. For all intents and purposes, the weight of the industry is on this particular film. Time will tell if a recovery is possible, but if any project has a chance to revitalize a floundering industry, it’s “Tenet.”
In an early scene where “The Protagonist” is introduced to the concept of introversion, a character states blankly “Don’t try and understand it, feel it,” and that is perfect instruction for the film itself. Don’t worry about the goofy tropes of zero-decibel suppressed pistols and explosion-proof protagonists, but just sit there and take it in. It’s a thriller action MOVIE from an excellent director, not a documentary, so just watch it and enjoy it. But more than the CGI-filled carcass of a Michael Bay film, there is intention behind each bullet fired (or inverse fired… each bullet defired?). I can’t understate how bluntly fun this movie is, and as has been said countless times before, this is why we go to the movies.