Christopher Nolan, maestro of brainy blockbusters, is turning back the clock with his new movie Tenet. Off-screen, the movie industry desperately hopes for a return to the era before COVID-19 closed theaters. And on-screen, loopy action sequences rewind through eye-popping . But is it in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Tenet is in theaters in the US and UK now (, and here’s the ). Warner Bros. has decreed you won’t be able to , so it’s a test case for movie theaters reopening during the that potentially paves the way for other blockbusters like , and before the end of the year. Tenet’s box office stands at about $130 million internationally and around $20 million from Labor Day weekend in the US, but plenty of theaters still aren’t open — and even with social distancing measures in place, the safety of moviegoers is still a concern.
Ironically, Tenet begins in a crowded theater, an incongruous sight in these strange times. Characters also spend a lot of time in face-obscuring respirators, which feels fitting as many viewers will be wearing masks too — for a bum-numbing 2 hours and 30 minutes. Covering the faces of the stars doesn’t exactly help you follow the story, as it’s hard enough to keep track of the complex plot even when you can see everybody’s face.
But that’s just the small stuff. The big question is whether it’s safe to go to the movies, and that depends where you are. Like all film fans, you may want to support cinema, and the movie industry has a lot riding on Tenet as the only remaining summer blockbuster with any chance of getting viewers back into desperate theaters. But even the most intricately choreographed action scene isn’t worth risking your health.
The good news is the movie is machine-crafted for watching in different formats. See it on the big screen and you’ll get an eyeful of the spectacle, or you can wait for streaming and TV to watch with the aid of subtitles. And a notebook. And several lengthy Reddit threads.
John David Washington is insanely watchable as he swaggers from one fight to the next, doing chin-ups dangling over sheer drops and going through more outfits than an issue of Esquire. He’s the Black James Bond of this shadowy world, barely wrinkling his three-piece suit as he takes out bullet-headed Russian mercs with whatever kitchen implements come to hand. He’s not the guy they send to negotiate, but he is the guy they send to get things done and look good doing it.
Speaking of 007, theinevitably hangs over Tenet. A globetrotting adventure full of beautiful people doing ugly things, Tenet’s plot is built on the with a dash of Thunderball, a pinch of The Man With the Golden Gun, a garnish of . But Nolan carries it off with such verve, the real James Bond has a fight on his hands when he returns in November’s .
For any other director, Tenet might feel like an audition for the famous spy franchise, but Dr. No-Lan doesn’t need to prove he can make a Bond film. Instead, he’s proven there’s nothing like a Christopher Nolan film. When it comes to smart and spectacular blockbusters with a sci-fi twist, nobody does it better. Which does mean Nolan has set a high bar for himself, and Tenet has to stretch to better the very similar Inception.
Yes, Tenet is pretty complicated. Even before things get all timey-wimey, you need to make an effort to keep track of what’s going on (check out our Michael Caine has ordered during his restaurant-based cameo, but as he chews over a barely comprehensible speech about secret Soviet cities, you realize it was probably the word salad.). The mission begins with a subplot about art forgery that mostly involves people sitting in dimly lit dining rooms, reeling off endless names and geopolitical complexities over their Michelin-starred meals. Call it lunchsposition. We never find out exactly what
Don’t worry if you don’t remember all the details, however. There’s a good guy and a bad guy and a woman caught between them, and a thing everyone wants to get before it destroys the world. The rest is just nice to look at. That’s kind of all it is, though.
The handsome cast may singe the screen with their star presence, but they don’t have much else to work with. The finely tailored outfits and gnomic one-liners don’t hide much depth, which is a problem as the run time ticks by and you’re stuck without much emotional connection to these people.
It’s a bit redundant at this point to point out Nolan’s lack of interest in depicting three-dimensional people when he can play around with flashy time changes instead, but that is Tenet’s biggest problem. Nolan’s tendency to create cinematic cyphers instead of characters came to a head in Dunkirk, in which he deliberately told us nothing about the characters and instead used his filmmaking skill to place you next to them in their horrifying situation. Those blank characters gave Dunkirk an element of “what would you do?” but that was a real-life war story; you don’t get that same viewer identification with a flashy action movie about tailored time travelers.
That means the effects-based time-twisting gimmick has to do all the heavy lifting. And the fact is, Tenet’s time-bending conceit just isn’t as gripping as the retina-popping gimmick of Nolan’s earlier brainy blockbuster Inception.
Sadly, similarities to Inception come with diminishing returns. If the Dark Knight Rises was The Dark Knight only not as good, Tenet is basically Inception only not as good. The dreamscapes of that 2010 blockbuster had layers and rules that built nerve-shredding suspense and allowed for jaw-dropping innovation, like the famous scene where a hotel goes into free fall and a fight sequence literally climbs the walls.
Tenet doesn’t hit that wow factor, perhaps because the gimmick’s rules and restrictions aren’t as clearly drawn. For example, the first time-based fight scene is exciting, but it’s not entirely clear who’s doing what or how the fighters can use this world’s different rules to do cool stuff you won’t see anywhere else. And without giving too much away, the time-bending gimmick spikes the tension at crucial moments. It might make for a chin-stroking discussion about inevitability and free will, but you don’t want to feel like the characters are going through the motions.
John David Washington is the man of the hour and Nolan has constructed another thriller with the precision of a Swiss watch. But if you’re not ready to clock back into theaters yet, you’ve got all the time in the world to see Tenet elsewhere.
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