Christopher Nolan brings us back to the theater with a methodical dance of craft and thrills that cuts just short of its potential perfection.
I slug myself through the trickling rain, threatening clouds hanging above my head and a mask tied over my face, as I trudge through the nearly abandoned parking lot of my local movie theater. As I enter, I’m greeted with the bright and wide lobby that fills so many of my most distinct memories. From the energized lines waiting for the opening night releases of Harry Potter films to the mind-melting chaos of trying to work my first post-graduation job during the premiere of Stephen King’s IT. All these moments come falling back like the rain I left outside. The familiar smell of bubbling popcorn welcomes me back as I walk through the doors, but the crowds of enticed moviegoers no longer overflow the bowels of the now forebodingly-empty space. Small groups of three or four people huddle together in corners, murmuring about the strangeness of it all. A few more stand apart in distanced lines, waiting quietly for their turn to receive the limited orders of oversized popcorn and soda, now sent to them through large plastic walls dividing the theater’s crew from its audience. The quiet is broken only by a pre-recorded message echoing “Your health and safety are our top priority…”
A year ago, this would have felt like a scene from a science fiction movie all its own. Now, more than any other experience since the start of the Covid-19 shutdown nearly eight months ago, I am struck by the realization of what our new normal has become. Not long ago, I was one of thousands crammed into a similar lobby on the other side of the country, fanboying with strangers as just a small part of the deafening chatter of audiences minutes away from being one of the first crowds to witness the finale of Star Wars. Now, I’m approaching a single person standing guard over a box office preceded by rows of taped off barriers dividing empty lines. I order my ticket for Tenent, the first major release to hit theaters as they open, and pick a seat distanced from the scattered few in attendance.
I make my way down the hall towards the theater, passing posters for movies released in January as I go. I enter the same screening room I once watched a marathon of The Dark Knight Trilogy at the premiere of its final film. I enter the blackened room and shuffle to my seat. After the end of the trailers, many for films planned for release long ago, we are greeted with one final reminder of the times as a cheery voice talks over epic music to remind us of the safety precautions in place. Always wear a mask, maintain distance from others, and, despite it all, enjoy the show.
A moment of darkness. Silence hangs. And then, for the first time since February, a movie begins.
What is Tenet About?
Tenet is a spy action-thriller from Christopher Nolan starring John David Washinton (BlackKklansman) as an out-of-his-league secret agent tasked with tracking down time manipulation technology to save the world. He’s backed up by his partner, Neil, portrayed charmingly by Robert Pattinson (The Batman, Twilight). Pivotal to the weaving plot is Kenneth Branagh’s ever-evil Andrei Sator, an arms dealer tied to the time traveling technology, and his estranged wife, Kat, played Elizabeth Debicki (The Crown, Great Gatsby), with motivations all her own. Washington’s character finds himself racing around the globe in search of answers, intertwining himself with various characters with plans of their own, all connected by a single word: Tenet.
Check out my spoiler free Tenet review below!
What I Love About Tenent
"Breaking rules isn’t interesting. It’s making up new ones that keeps things exciting."
Christopher Nolan is one of the most recognized names in modern filmmaking. His dedication to meticulous filmmaking along with his eye for scale and immersion bridge the film nerds and the general moviegoer into one big hit, a rare achievement for an auteur director. Nolan used this all-star clout to stand his ground through a global pandemic, demanding Warner Brothers wait for theaters to reopen rather than cave to a streaming home release. With great relief, Tenet is a dazzling film worth the grandstanding. Tenet demands to be seen at its full scale, speakers ablast, screen bright and powerful. The action setpieces are breathtaking with ambition and craft, often leaving me pressed against the back of my chair, blown away in wonder. I often sat back, smiling in disbelief over how many of the movie’s ambitious setpieces were pulled off. Nolan is often criticized for his action, but he clearly learned a lot from his work on Dunkirk, and many action moments, especially a mid-movie plane sequence, are reminiscent of the in-camera ambition of the spiraling hallway of Inception. His craft in this film is expert, using color, framing, effects, and editing all to his advantage.
Nolan has built a cinematic playground for himself in Tenet and has spent a career developing the tools and skills to make the most of his ambition. Nolan holds nothing back in his action here, using the time-inverting premise to create mesmerizing car chases, breathtaking shootouts, and pulse-pounding fist fights, all with creative visuals not over-reliant on computer effects. This grounds the sci-fi action in a tangible reality often missing from the over the top scale action seen in the genre’s most popular offshoots. Nolan can make a simple fist fight ripple excitement through your blood more than other films can with entire armies clashing, a feat that demands the respect of seeing in its most complete glory. If you live in an area where theaters are safe to attend, the action of Tenet makes it the first movie absolutely worth returning for.
What I Like About Tenet
A World Outside My Own Mind
Tenet builds a complex world, filled with technobabble and lingo both based in reality and pulled from the imagination of the sci-fi genre. We are thrown harshly into this world, forced to catch up on our own and grab on to the glimmers of explanation as they shine through. Much like John David Washinton’s leading character, we as the audience find ourselves quickly in over our heads, having to embrace the rules and limitations of a world increasingly unlike our own. This provides wonderful escapism from our own harsh reality, forcing us to fully engage with the material and use the entirety of our mental ability to process what we are experiencing. Little time is spent catching the audience up to speed, relying on our intuition and the craft of the story on screen to carry us through. This occasionally left me bewildered and confused, wishing we had a moment or two to take a breath and assess the story being told. Some moments left me internally wondering to myself “what is even happening right now?” If Inception left you scratching your head, you may go bald from Tenet. However, by the end, I was entirely satisfied with the narrative presented. The answers are there and the pieces are presented, it is on us to piece the puzzle together. I am happy to see a film that did not feel the need to handhold its audience and instead took us seriously enough to understand what was needed and to simply enjoy the ride for the rest.
What I Dislike About Tenet
Being blown away by the echoing soundtrack shaking the seats of a cinema is one of the most satisfying parts of the theater experience. Tenet’s soundtrack and sound design has elements of genuine greatness, especially in how well it leans into the time-warping premise. The score is hinted with reversed hums echoing forwards as time manipulates around us and punctuated with blaring high tension thrills. The sound design is a mix of subtle wind and screeching cars, all pouring through powerful surround sound speakers to the highest effect and making the most of any auditorium’s percussive power. However, the charm of this overloaded sound does eventually wear thin and feel overwhelming, even in the few moments of relative calm. For those who believed Dunkirk to be overscored or Inception to be too reliant on echoing blares, Tenet turns these elements to the max, even leaving some viewers with echoing ears. The biggest victim of the sound mixing is the dialogue of the film itself. In most scenes, the dialogue is treated as secondary to the action on screen, with some pivotal conversations almost impossible to follow. In a film so reliant on explaining its world in quick and rapid delivery, this is a glaring flaw that seems to have been intentional, or at least universal to all screenings. It provides a physical and visceral experience in the theater, but I often found myself anticipating the home release, where I can find comfort in the subtitles of the 4K BluRay.
What I Hate About Tenet
A Hero can be Anyone
One of Nolan’s most endearing and enduring elements is his ability to elicit powerful emotion. Whether it is the quotable final monologue that takes us out of The Dark Knight or the heartbreaking realization of Matthew McConaughey’s Coop as he learns his children grew up without him in Interstellar, Nolan has always been a director who relies on powerful emotional stakes to build his characters. Sadly, where Tenet delivers in thrills, ambition, and technical prowess, it severely lacks in characterization and emotional complexity. Despite its 2.5 hour runtime, we rarely slow down, flying through conversations and characters to quickly move on. Take a moment to reflect on the revelations of a scene, and you may find yourself missing a moment just as important.
The limited emotional palette makes many of the characters feel hollow and limits our investment in their fates as their well-being becomes threatened. Their actions become questionable when we understand so little of where they are coming from, especially in pivotal scenes towards the end of the film. Some will enjoy the escape from emotional stakes in a 2020 world that inspires such a pendulum of mental experiences nearly every day, and many film fans may be satisfied after criticizing Nolan’s reliance on emotional reaction rather than sensical plot. However, what holds Tenet back from reaching the top quality of a Nolan ranking is in the heart. When we are expected to care the most, I often felt very little. Despite the increasingly high stakes, I often felt a distance between myself and the characters’ motivations. From a director rooted in emotion and in a year of mass social change, it is somewhat disheartening to see a beautifully crafted film with almost nothing to say. This lack of emotional investment limits Tenet from reaching the heights the other elements surpass and holds he film back from hitting the power Nolan is capable of.
So, Where Were We?
So theaters are back! Did you see Tenet this week? Let me know what you thought and please avoid spoilers!
Movies are finally trickling back out, so my reviews will be too. I do not plan on supporting Disney’s ridiculous asking price for Mulan on Disney Plus, so my next review will be for Charlie Kaufman strange (and also time warping?) chiller, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Look for that review here later this week. Let me know what else you're looking forward to now that movies have returned to save the world.