Has Christopher Nolan’s Tenet conked out too soon in its beleaguered theatrical run, snoozing while no one’s watching? Would it have performed proportionately better had it not capsized in the vast, tumultuous sea change that is the Age of Coronavirus? Perhaps it isn’t fair to argue over its meager box office profits while much of the American theatrical market is shut down or heavily restricted, but argue over it we must, for we are Of The Internet. Sometimes we must ponder things deemed insignificant in the grand scheme, and sometimes we go to tortuous lengths to justify our painfully contrived palindromic headlines.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: I left the house and went out to the movies. Yes, I know. Yes, I KNOW. I already explained myself last time.
So. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, then — the biggest movie of summer 2020! Virtually by default, but it still counts.
Short version for the unfamiliar: CIA agent and BlacKkKlansman star John David Washington undergoes an obligatory opening set piece, only to notice screwy moments in which a few things around him seem to be moving backwards. After that mission ends unhappily, he’s sent into the shadows to ally with a mysterious group calling themselves Tenet, a name chosen because palindromic symbolism and no other explicit reason, as they utter nary an actual tenet. They’re an off-the-books operation tasked with righting wrongs that mainstream law enforcement isn’t equipped to comprehend. Things possessed by an imaginary rewind button fall right into their bailiwick.
Setting aside the SF aspects, much of the film follows the standard James Bond plotting template — action scenes are filmed in a series of international locations lovingly shot at considerable expense, and the script staples them together later in an order that means more to the filmmakers than it does to the audience. In between long commutes, Our Hero — who speaks nearly never of his own background (call him the Bespoke Man with No Name) — is introduced to the concept of “inverted entropy”, a succinct descriptor of how certain things, places, or people are moving and living in reverse, relative to us ordinary folks trapped in the space-time continuum’s unidirectional fourth-dimensional flow like the chumps we are. But there’s a process involved, which of course has rules and limitations. One cannot simply choose to moonwalk and speak like Zatanna, and then watch all their spent minutes fly the wrong way coming back.
Taking advantage of this alarming development is Kenneth Branagh (reuniting with Nolan after Dunkirk) in his most vicious role in years, as a Russian fatcat named Sator with a selfish motivation to end the world and his eye on a MacGuffin that’ll make his despicable dream come true. Can Our Hero figure out which way the Big Bad is going, which way he needs to move against him, and how much time he has left? Or had left? Or will have had left? Or may have will have had has will left had will?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Former teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson is a nebulous European guy who becomes Our Hero’s de facto partner. Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager, Widows) is Branagh’s abused wife, whom Our Hero tries to save along the way while at the same time needing her assistance with key parts of his plan. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Age of Ultron, 2014’s Godzilla) comes in late as a commanding officer who receives no real introduction and who’s unrecognizable with a big beard and shaved head.
Clémence Poésy (Goblet of Fire‘s Fleur Delacour) has one scene as a scientist who has to sell the audience on this “inverted entropy” jazz so we don’t keep raising our hands with questions later. Martin Donovan (Al Pacino’s partner in Nolan’s Insomnia) has one scene as a CIA boss. Nolan’s old pal Michael Caine has one scene as an expository guy. Himesh Patel (star of last year’s Yesterday) drops by for a few minutes to help connect a Tab A with a Slot B.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
- Everything’s relative, sometimes more so than we think?
- You don’t know what you got till it’s gone?
- What if we had do-overs? That’d be cool.
- Happy memories are nice to revisit, but don’t let them distract you from what’s important.
- People who know they’re dying can commit the most audacious acts.
- Sure hope you love physics classes!
Tenet is concerned more with conceptual matters than with overt thematic resonance. Washington’s motivations are entirely plot-driven, no flashbacks or introspection that make his battles with Sator mean more. He’s very much a man who’s always in the moment, going with the flow and carrying no more weight than the burdens in front of him. He’s either shallow or unshackled depending on your relative position to him, but magnetic when viewed from any direction.
Complexly reduced, Tenet‘s core mechanic is a byzantine method of time travel, except performed in real time, which means participants are taking the slowest possible route to get there and can’t skip any years on the way back. Whenever real-world scientists conceive of a way to bring a sci-fi concept into our reality, there are always frustrating drawbacks, either because the inventors couldn’t do any better or could’ve used billions more in funding to produce True Magic. Inverted entropy and its constraints sound aptly in line with such standard SF-to-reality transitions. Over the course of years that Nolan spent developing the script, he consulted with physicists (including Interstellar advisor Kip Thorne) and did his best to give Neil deGrasse Tyson fewer reasons to nitpick. It’s hard to delve into that without old textbooks in front of me, or without diving into a deep Wikipedia rabbit hole for weeks.
Nitpicking? Then there are the film’s non-science aspects. I saw it at a Dolby Cinema at AMC screen, the company’s next size down from IMAX with a slightly more HD picture and rapturously deafening sound. From the fourth row it was like an audio-visual manly massage of bullets, punches, and explosions of all sizes, turned down to a mere volume-11 for occasional conversations and interludes with Ludwig Göransson’s bracing score (looped backwards at times, as you’d guess). I’m not sure whether to blame Nolan, his sound team, or our theater, but an extraordinary amount of dialogue was rendered unintelligible. All the incessant noise, busyness, and numerous masks (Holy Bane, Batman!), not to mention a fair number of accents that give my not-so-great hearing a struggle even when they’re cranked to the max — entire paragraphs of exposition and revelations were buried in exciting muck.
I wouldn’t have minded if Tenet had gone the route of Interstellar and obliterated only lines that were perfunctory and unnecessary to get the gist of what was happening. Here, such convoluted machinations require several heavy interchanges in a row. Deprived of those tidbits, I grasped inverted entropy far better than I did the bog-standard arms-dealer plot framework upon which it all rests, which had a fair number of moving pieces. I tried to nod, smile, and just run with it, but by the time we reached the climax, a painstakingly choreographed wartime sequence involving two armies intersecting on multiple levels, knowing the “how” to it all but not knowing the “why” of a lot of the ensuing chaos killed my enthusiasm. I lost touch with the cerebral and had to settle for cheering the visceral. Less intellectual, more EXPLOSIONS!
After I got home, I read up on the full details and then all the plot movements fell into place like unlocked tumblers. After the fact, Tenet could be better appreciated. By its very nature it invites, even demands multiple viewings. So maybe the first viewing was supposed to be a wash, like a training level for beginning Tenet watchers before the player goes on to experience it again and again and again, old-school video-game style.
But at today’s theater prices, and with the hobbled state of moviegoing today, it’s a colossal favor to ask, to come at us with a film that’s designed to be an incomplete experience on principle, simply to be patronized upon your first frustrating viewing. Anyone who’s ever mocked a slow-moving Netflix series when someone tells them “It gets really good around episode 9, I swear!” may not be impressed by Tenet defenders who insist, “It gets so, so awesome the fourth time you watch it!” I can imagine parts of Film Twitter thriving on those rewards.
I’m sure I’ll have my closure once I get to watch it a second time at home with subtitles. I had similar problems the first time I sat through Gosford Park and many of its refined English accents bounced off my compromised bumpkin ears. Eighteen years later I made time for an encore presentation courtesy of Netflix and gave it a much more emphatic thumbs-up. Odds are Tenet may one day receive its own similarly, drastically time-shifted reconsideration. Not while it’s exclusive to theaters, though.
One other distraction arrived for me at the end, when a particular conversation explained one of the last remaining secrets in a way that made too much sense because I’ve already seen something like it before. Fans of Doctor Who should feel a bit of tingling as they recall a unique old friend and a most peculiar relationship with more than a passing resemblance. Fans of the Bill & Ted series may also laugh harder than they’re supposed to at moments when characters decide to do a thing later, but then reap the effect of that as-yet-uncaused effect in the here and now. (In hindsight I wish I could’ve seen their new sequel before this.)
So what’s to like? Setting aside Nolan’s aims for “groundbreaking” cinema, he can still assemble thrill-ride action scenes with masterful efficiency, expediency, and the tightest of tensions. My gripes notwithstanding, those explosions and gunshots really are top-notch in their own way, often next-level when combined with the mind-bending elements that erupt from left field yet make more sense as they stack up. Of particular note is a car chase taken from more than one vantage point, some of which was in the trailers but out of context. In-story, it was one of the most inventive freeway fracases since The Matrix Reloaded.
In addition to amping up the bangs and boomz and bams and zooms, Tenet also delivers on larger-than-life performances from an impeccable cast. I already complimented Washington above where I could, but Branagh looms large as a seething specter with nothing to lose, who feels like he could kill a man just by pointing his unbridled fury at him. The Dolby Cinema turns Branagh into a mountain of intensity, and makes Elizabeth Debicki slightly taller. (Bonus points to Nolan for actually allowing us to see Debicki is six inches taller than Washington, no equalizing orange crates or bar stools around.) Height advantage or no, Debicki more than holds her own as she gradually pulls up the courage to withstand her evil husband’s nasty onslaughts and do far more than just wait for Our Hero to rescue her. Meanwhile over to the side, Pattison makes for a dashing, devil-may-care second-fiddle, though it’s really odd to see him brandishing a gun like this.
Win or lose, I do appreciate Nolan’s persistence in trying things on film that haven’t been attempted before, or at least not to the same intricately dreamed depths. My first time through Tenet wasn’t everything I’d hoped it would be, but we’ll see about coming back to it in the future. But moving forward through then, not backward from now.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Tenet end credits, which is just as well. I was concentrating so hard on trying to fit the movie’s puzzle pieces together that most of the names, roles, and other tidbits slid past me unheeded. Presumably at the studio’s insistence, viewers can listen to a new Travis Scott song called “The Plan”, then let remnants of the thunderous score resume buffeting their bodies and eardrums like the theater manager is trying to smash The Virus in their bodies with sonic waves.