Movie Review

TENET (2020) Movie Review

Déjà Vu, a Travis Scott/Christopher Nolan collab, and a surprise performance from our new Batman, Robert Pattinson

Trailer for TENET, featuring Travis Scott’s single “The Plan”

Christopher Nolan’s newest film TENET was released on HBO Max this past weekend. The tentpole blockbuster entrusted with saving theaters nationwide during the pandemic can finally be watched the way Nolan did not intend. And after watching it on increasingly smaller screens, you must wonder that he might have been right.

Nolan’s time-twirling foray into the spy genre, and the closest he will get to making a Bond film, had a lot riding on it: a major action blockbuster with a Black male lead and the only blockbuster to be released in theaters during a pandemic at a time when movie theaters were closed around the country. Nolan had been adamant, some might even say reckless about seeing his film in theaters and if you were apprehensive about doing so, those feelings were warranted because we are rounding 580,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. To say Nolan’s push for seeing TENET in theaters were misguided is an understatement: no matter how famous of a director you are, or how great your film may be, no one is going to, nor should, risk their health and/or others to see a movie. I can foresee this being a minor issue for Nolan throughout the rest of his career, but future film historians will be even less kind.

The film itself is neither terrible nor great. A b-movie with a large budget, slick sequences, and one of the best scores in recent history. If you’re interested in understanding the plot, it will require multiple viewings not because of its complexity, but the opaque way in which simple information like the location of an important artifact is laid out. At times this is done through fast-tracked exposition and montage editing while other times it’s just a matter of off-screen plot development. Early in the film Clemence Posey’s character (the “Q” equivalent of a James Bond film) explains “inversion,” the pseudoscience that drives the plot, to John David Washington’s cleverly named “Protagonist” (a black lead without a name or personality doesn’t do much for representation, although I theorized why Nolan made that choice here). Her statement “Don’t try to understand it; feel it,” should be taken to heart when watching this film. Nolan emphasized seeing TENET in theaters because it is a movie to be experienced more than it is to be understood. And goddamn is it an experience.

Denzel Washington (in the late Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu) and John David Washington (in TENET) can’t believe what they’re unseeing

I want to see the IMAX sequences in full, so I purchased the Blu-Ray and I can only wonder how spectacular it must have looked and sounded. From the sun-kissed and ancient coast of Amalfi to a siege in a Brutalist Tallinn opera house, nothing is wasted in this gargantuan format. Scenes are shot so seamlessly in forward and then in reverse that you have to admire the craftsmanship if nothing else. This reviewer highly recommends watching it on the Blu-Ray or 4K UHD versions to get the closest you can to the theatrical experience. And judging from audiences who saw it in person, you should bump the sound up until you can’t understand a word the characters are saying to get the most accurate experience. Plus you’ll get to hear Ludwig Göransson’s pulsating score, which comes with its own push and pull of sounds, continuing the motif of inversion underneath the film.

“I hear the red and blue outside, I think our options up…”

Elizabeth Debicki does fine as Katherine Barton, trapped in an abusive and at times, darkly humorous relationship with the Big Bad, Andrei Sator. She is another mother-who-will-do-anything-to-save-her-son, whose only other characteristic is being an art dealer. As a plot device, her eventual revenge feels weightless. Kenneth Branagh’s Sator is your typical Slavic villain fare: an over-played accent and a generic motive, but you can tell he’s having fun playing a Bond villain. The best actors will commit to a role no matter what. But it’s Robert Pattinson who shines as the mysterious and world-weary Neil, and ironically his unknown past actually helps rather than hurts his character. It’s at the end that he becomes the real heart and soul of the film, more so than even our Protagonist.

“I done went back in myself, felt like hell…”

Sadly, TENET is as cold as the Brutalist settings the characters weave through when plotting how to break into a freeport or fighting inverted “antagonists.” I never felt for Washington’s character because we knew nothing about him: where he’s from, why he cares so much about saving people, or his family. Nothing. We just know he broke a leg in basic training. He functions as a conduit to the film’s ideas, much like Ariadne from Inception. But at least in that film we identified with Cobb because he had the highest emotional stakes for completing the heist: he wanted to be reunited with his kids and escape his wife’s ghost.

And yet despite the coldness, I can’t help but love the experience of watching the film. The pandemic had prevented me and others from enjoying one of the few sanctuaries for our emotional well-being: the movie theater. More and more people have chosen streaming over cinemas, and for good reason: you can watch at your convenience, there are more options for titles, you don’t have the hassle of other people talking over the film, and you don’t spend two grand for some Milk Duds and a small coke. But you know what? That’s exactly why I love theaters: I love that there’s a moment in time and space that belongs to you and a group of eager movie-goers, a moment that lives infinitely, out of ownership from anyone else as it lies locked in memory. I love the limited options so I’m not mindlessly scrolling for a title to put on, spending more time choosing a title instead of watching anything that looks good. And I know I’m in the minority on this, but I love when people talk during a movie. Probably not full on-conversations like when a lady was on the phone during Jurassic World, but hearing those “oohs” and “aahs” and “did you see that??” makes me happy that film can provoke such a visceral reaction.

It really is my sanctuary, where I feel most at home, where I can feel the most communal and the most like myself. So, when I saw TENET at home, I didn’t picture myself at home, sitting in the kitchen; I pictured myself in a theater.

I bumped up the sound as loud as I could, turned off the lights, and not once did I rewind or pause so that I could have one continuous experience with the film. Everything exists in a stream, without pause, and if you don’t want to miss anything you better sprint back as fast as you can from the bathroom. I must have watched the leaked prologue dozens and dozens of times before the film was actually released on home media. I was working a shitty job in a shitty place during a shitty time and this film was all I had to look forward to.

I know that people will see this as a cold film, because it is. I know that people will find the plot convoluted, because it absolutely is. And I know that this film will rank low in Nolan’s filmography, because it does. Yet it really does hold a special place in my heart because I learned how to enjoy the cinema without even going there. I could grab those feelings and pack them into a corner of my mind and open them back up when I watched TENET. It’s a great film not because of the story (or lack thereof), but because of its importance to me. I didn’t understand the film, but I certainly felt it, and in light of the past year, with a transformation happening in the country and the world, we’re going to have start looking at the world in a new way.

Mixed Fil Am filmmaker and writer. I binge Borges, Faulkner, and Qabbani. Unpublished essays, stories, poetry, criticism, and feelings.

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