I’ve had this sinking feeling throughout 2020 that, after March, there would be no more new films released — like everything would just stop cold, nothing left in the pipeline, leaving us all to choose, as the Best Film of the Year, the last flick I remember watching in a cinema before COVID shut down all the malls: Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.
Whoo-hoo. Imagine that. Nothing wrong with Margot Robbie in anything, basically. But a third-rate, pop-flavored Joker spinoff, as Best Film of the Year? By default? Thanks, COVID. Thanks, 2020.
But that hasn’t happened. One way or another, movie releases stalled due to COVID have managed to seep out, in limited ways. Probably one of the most awaited was Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
Starring John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Robert Pattinson, it’s a shift back to the mind-bending, techno-thriller sci-fi of Inception and Interstellar, after Nolan’s Oscar-worthy, emotionally grounded masterpiece of Dunkirk.
Want to see two men engaging in backwards martial arts? You got it. How about an elaborate tableaux of men running forwards while others are running backwards, set at an airport where fireballs explode everywhere in reverse? Or what about a crazy high-speed car chase in which a forward-driving SUV is being chased by a backwards-driving Audi down a highway? Yep, that’s doable, too.
And, like much of the director’s work since Memento, it’s very much concerned with the notion of time — how it’s perceived and experienced, and how it can be bent any which way through active imagination.
Tenet (a palindromic name, same backwards as forwards) opens with a typical Nolan action set piece: masked commandos working for the CIA pour into the Kyiv Opera House, temporarily gas the entire audience, and attempt to retrieve some device or another (let’s call it a “MacGuffin”); a Black agent (Washington) is nearly shot but sees the bullet moving in reverse from a gun. Later, he’s clued in by another contact named Neil (Pattinson), who explains that what he saw is part of an operation known as Tenet — in which future operatives are sending back agents to slip into present time to acquire crucial information. The main target is an arms dealer named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who’s blackmailing the statuesque Elizabeth Debicki and threatening her son, and wants to retrieve the MacGuffin so he can control time and maybe cause World War III in the process.
It’s all very complicated, but suffice to say it allows Nolan to construct some really elaborate set pieces that eff around with time, every which way. Want to see two men engaging in backwards martial arts? You got it. How about an elaborate tableaux of men running forwards while others are running backwards, set at an airport where fireballs explode everywhere in reverse? Or what about a crazy high-speed car chase in which a forward-driving SUV is being chased by a backwards-driving Audi down a highway? Yep, that’s doable, too.
Shot on IMAX cameras and 35mm and 70mm film, Tenet is a lush cinematic experience, and here Nolan finally gets his chance to do a Mission: Impossible/James Bond-style thriller in which the men are impeccably dressed, and the woman (Debicki, playing Kat) is largely a damsel in distress. At a cost of $200 million, they may have picked the wrong time to pull this off, as its release was delayed three times due to COVID-19. Even as the biggest box-office earner this year during a time when few people are venturing inside semi-filled cinemas, it’s unclear whether Tenet will actually break even.
But set aside the logistics and bask in the fact that Nolan has constructed yet another visual and cerebral puzzle for us audience members to unlock. Sure, it’s pretty hard to make out what Washington is saying half the time, the fanciful exposition flies by faster than Matrix bullets, and Nolan stills insists on having several of his actors speaking from behind masks, which makes them even more unintelligible (for past examples, see Bane in Dark Knight Rises, Batman in same, Tom Hardy in Dunkirk, etc.); but at least it’s not another superhero sequel in a world of endless superhero sequels.
Nolan is a technical director in the sense that Hitchcock or Kubrick were, but often his movies lack the connective human tissue that made us care about Hitch’s heroes, or the indelible imagery logic of Kubrick’s finest work.
Those are the good points. But Nolan has always been, for me, a mixed blessing, precisely because his scripts can be cold, logical puzzles that insist on our riveted attention. Myself, as much as I admire the thought behind Inception or Interstellar, I found their very construction distancing. The scripts he’s worked on with brother Jonathan have been more satisfying emotionally (Memento, The Prestige, Dark Knight). And I have to say, despite all the strengths built into the overlong Batman trilogy, it really was only the human chaos principle of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight that remains lodged in my memory, long after the intricate puzzles and games have faded. Nolan is a technical director in the sense that Hitchcock or Kubrick were, but often his movies lack the connective human tissue that made us care about Hitch’s heroes, or the indelible imagery logic of Kubrick’s finest work.
Another difficulty right now is that we’ve all been stuck indoors for some time, fed on a diet of Netflix movies and content that has not stretched our minds very far. Digesting a complicated Christopher Nolan scenario — one that runs nearly two and half hours — may take repeat viewings for many couch dwellers these days.
And that’s okay. Even Dunkirk required some close second or third viewings to catch the fleeting dialogue and appraise all of its masterful construction. Tenet relies on Nolan’s trademark pulsating score (his Dunkirk composer Hans Zimmer was busy working on Dune, so Ludwig Göransson here takes on the duties) and some lush locations (Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay), and it is gorgeous to look at. What it lacks is pacing: a willingness to allow your audience to absorb crucial information first before hurtling them onward, forward through your constructed time maze.
Other notes: Debicki adds soul to her mother character, which the movie sorely needs; Branagh’s Russian accent is cheerfully ridiculous, his dialogue sometimes risible; Pattinson says he modeled his character after famed atheist Chris Hitchins, but that nuance escaped my notice; Washington is smooth and suave, but (so far) lacks the kinetic, force-of-nature presence of his dad Denzel, which is a problem since he’s the lead.
In fact, Washington’s character here is known only as “The Protagonist,” a distinction that keeps getting mentioned in the movie, which is really a tip-off as to what’s in store. Debicki, meanwhile, has better chemistry with Branagh than with Washington; Washington seems to have better chemistry with Pattinson, which is not so unusual for a guy-driven action thriller.
My wife Therese noted that “it must have been hell” to edit Tenet, because the action keeps going backward and forward, literally, on the screen. It reminded me of the recent Charlie Kaufman novel Antkind, about a film reviewer who insists on watching a movie six or seven times to fully appreciate it — forwards, then backwards, then from a distant room, or upside-down, etc. — to see if he missed something. It occurred to me that, even in lockdown, even when temporality is as fluid and pliable as it is in Tenet, I really don’t have that kind of time on my hands.
Banner caption- Time bandits: John David Washington and Robert Pattinson get into mission position in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.