Is Tenet The Film To Save Cinema?
Director Christopher Nolan has frequently expressed a goal of saving the ‘cinema-going experience’, a losing battle even without the unblockable haymaker of COVID-19. He’s either pioneered or popularised techniques or ideas that became standard across the industry – IMAX cameras; serious superhero films, booming ‘bwah’ soundtracks; treating the audience like intelligent adults, to name a few. So now, at cinema’s darkest hour when they need a hero more than ever, did he manage it with Tenet? Let’s take a look.
There aren’t many people who have mastered the manipulation of time in film like Nolan. From Memento’s reversed chronology, to Dunkirk’s warped timelines, to The Prestige’s meta-epistolary narrative, it’s common knowledge that Nolan thinks linear chronology is for chumps. When he’s not messing with time in the editing room, he’s getting weird with it in the script, with Interstellar’s recursive time travel, Inception’s slowed dream perception, and the bizarre way Bruce Wayne fixes his broken spine and hitchhikes back to Gotham in a few months in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s no surprise, then, that his latest endeavour, Tenet, is the wibbliest-wobbliest ball of timey-wimey stuff yet, and it’s as impressive as it is frustrating.
To summarise the premise, people have figured out how to reverse the entropy of things and people to make them move backwards in time (‘inverted’ in the film’s terms). John David Washington’s Protagonist, a CIA agent, is tasked with finding out why things are being sent back in time and stopping the evil machinations of Kenneth Brannagh’s Sator. I must emphasise that this is the barest, surface-level, spoiler-free explanation of the plot possible – there is so much more than this.
The biggest barrier to understanding the plot of Tenet isn’t the writing itself – much like Inception whole scenes are dedicated to understanding how everything works, and to dismiss plot holes that can’t be explained away. No, the biggest problem is that it’s really hard to hear what everyone is saying. Inverted people need to wear inverted oxygen masks to be able to breathe, and their dialogue didn’t seem to have been dubbed over in post. Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack, while awesome when it’s supporting a scene (and on brand for a Nolan film, comfortably filling shoes normally worn by Hans Zimmer), is often far too loud, blaring over dialogue that really needs to be heard. Michael Caine is in the film for one scene and he spends the whole of it speaking with his mouth full. That one might just be me, but it’s definitely a systemic problem with the film.
Audio aside, Tenet is well-thought-out, clever, and paced perfectly – not too fast that you can’t keep up, and not slow enough to drag along. I think we all expected this one to be the most confusing and complex of all of Nolan’s films, but the man knows what he’s doing in this regard. Along the way though, he seems to have missed the need to anchor the highfalutin concepts to something relatable, or a genuine human emotion here and there. The movie works best when the characters are allowed to develop as well as the time travel concepts are; when the Protagonist and super-spy buddy Neil’s chemistry shines through, or when toxic couple Sator and Kat spitefully torture one another, but these moments are far apart and certainly not the focus.
Brannagh pretty much steals the show in the acting department, with a physical menace I’ve never seen him demonstrate before. Some of his performance genuinely gave me chills; at one point in the film he compares himself to a tiger and it’s hard to disagree as he erupts from cold stillness to extreme violence in an instant. Washington is a solid protagonist – badass, funny and cool. His only downside is a lack of idiosyncrasies or backstory, but that’s a role filled quite well by Robert Pattinson’s Neil. I only wish similar writing went to Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, who performed excellently but whose whole character and motivation could be summarised as ‘mother’. There were sniggers throughout the audience at a moment when Kat responds to news that the world might end by saying something along the lines of “including my son?” evoking cringey memories of Anne Hathaway’s love monologue from Interstellar.
I really must mention the costumes, which are legitimately distracting, for better or for worse. Designer Jeffrey Kurland went back to a well he dipped into for Inception by giving everyone a completely idiosyncratic dress code. The Protagonist’s distinct style provides a nice bit of non-verbal personality, and it is thoroughly entertaining watching Pattinson dressed as a French grandma.
Some of the action scenes are truly mesmerising – one instance of a fight between one person moving forward in time and one inverted sticks in the memory, as we see it happen first from one POV, and then again from the other side. Impossible, erratic movements somehow look both clumsy and graceful at the same time, and your brain reels trying to picture the inverted motion in normal time. You have to marvel at the minds of the teams who conceived and executed these scenes in such a believable way, and none of my gripes with this movie stopped me enjoying the hell out of every action set piece.
On the other hand, the plane crash scene was one of the more underwhelming in the movie. For all of its impressive size and noise, and an encouraging lack of a reliance on CGI (throughout the whole movie in fact), I just think it’s not that clever for a Nolan action set piece. I’m thinking here of the gravity-shifting corridor in Inception or the mid-flight hijack opening of TDKR. It’s not enough to bring down the thrills of the movie, but such a big deal was made of it in the marketing that I have to mention it. Then again, I appreciate it’s hard to convey how awesome a ‘temporal pincer movement’ is in a two-minute trailer.
So is this the movie to save cinema? Honestly, I don’t think this is the right movie to try – I think Tenet should have been released online rather than in cinema. Now, I don’t want to knock the cinema experience, far from it. I think it’s hard to recreate the claustrophobic anxiety of, say, an Ari Aster film from the comfort of your own home, and I’ll never forget sensing fifty people afraid to eat or breathe while watching A Quiet Place.
Tenet, on the other hand, isn’t a big blockbuster extravaganza. It’s a puzzle box, one that should be examined, viewed from different angles, poked and prodded at to find all of its secrets, and that’s simply not possible to do in a closed-environment while you’re also trying to figure out the plot. My second viewing was far more rewarding than the first was, now with a fundamental understanding of who everyone is and how everything works, I could focus on the sheer craft of it all. You could spend hours combing through scenes to find every neat effect at play, especially in the large-scale combat scenes where perspective is shifting from forwards to backwards every minute.
I recommend you watch it, but I really think you’re better off waiting to rent or buy it online. If cinema deserves to be saved, this film isn’t the one to do it.
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