With the COVID-19 pandemic permanently shaking up the cinematic world, one crusader for the “old” tradition of cinema screenings instead of VOD release was Christopher Nolan, who almost single handedly demanded cinemas reopen in time for the release of his hotly anticipated Tenet. It became a light at the end of tunnel for cinephiles; the long awaited return to normal (and to cinema screens). Yet, when the film opened, it was met with mixed reviews; the worst concoction for a film of this scale– not good, not bad, just meh and not nearly enough to entice people back to cinemas. Many complained of the sound mixing, the shaky cinematography and the supposedly incomprehensible storyline.
By the time I got around to watching, the online in-fighting and sheer vitriol against positive and negative reviewers alike was enough to tire out even the most steadfast of Nolan fanboys. I went in expecting the worst, but what I got was one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I’ve had to date. It wasn’t Nolan’s best, but ‘best’ by Nolan’s standards is still “pretty damn good” in anyone else’s books.
A bombastic, slick and mind-boggling affair about inversion, entropy and other complicated psuedo-scientific words, Nolan’s time-bending adventurous romp from Estonia to Vietnam is a Nolan film in every sense of the word; accessible while still being a ‘thinking man’s film, visually arresting while not prioritising style over substance, and above all, packed to the gills with a star studded cast.
But what sets Tenet apart from Nolan’s previous films is how fun it is. It plays with the form of film and plays with it well, all while knowing that that’s all it is doing– playing. It doesn’t try to change blockbuster cinema or the conventions of time travel necessarily; heck it even has the traditional villains’ monologue revealing his grand plan. But, it has fun with these concepts. Which is a brave step for Nolan, whose career prior to Tenet has been almost solely based on taking cinematic laws and breaking them. Tenet shows a self restraint, a distance to the art form he’s never shown before, and it pays off. Not only that, but it’s almost stunningly tongue-in-cheek at times, and has moments of genuine comic relief and brilliant meta-reference; John David Washington’s delivery of the line “I am The Protagonist” is sure to go down in the annals of cinema history along with “You talkin’ to me?” and “Hey, I’m walking here!”.
The film moves at breakneck speed, which shouldn’t totally come as a suprise to veteran fans of Nolan, but the true mastry lies in its ability to maintain this pace for two and a half hours without ever feeling monotonous or loosing its tension. The explosions get louder and the special effects reach new heights but it’s not just junk food for the eyes, it’s sheer enjoyment. I enjoyed seeing a car get flipped over, and then reversed in time. Locked in The Protagonist (John David Washington)’s point of view, the bombs are loud, the camera movement is shaky and the explanations are just as confusing as you would find them if they were being rattled off right after you had nearly got shot in the head. While this was one of the main complaints, it actually stands as one of the most unique cinematic aspects. Much like Nolan’s earlier film, Interstellar (2014), the audience is literally experiencing this with him, loud explosions and all.
Admittedly, it is the cast that pulls off the rest of the film. Without the near perfect casting, Tenet very well could have been a victim of it’s own grandiose, but with steadied performances from Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson and, most notably, John David Washington, it is anchored in strong characters and relationships.
There are those who’ve argued that by hardly knowing the characters and their backstory it resulted in a no-stakes film, but I disagree, and would argue that this is an almost fundamental misread of the film. Tenet is contained within itself; it’s so focused on the singular story rather than backstory that it literally names its protagonist ‘The Protagonist’. By doing so, Nolan draws a line in the sand; this is what we’re focusing on. Not that, this. As Clémence Poésy’s tight-lipped scientist quips “you’re not here for what, you’re here for how”. It worked in Dunkirk, and to my mind, it works just as well in Tenet. These self-contained films allow for no melodramatics, and only what is literally immediately occurring within a set time frame.
The beating heart of this film is, undoubtedly, the chemistry between Neil (masterfully and camply played by Robert Pattinson) and The Protagonist. Their relationship is complex and multifaceted but beneath it all there’s a genuine thread of tenderness and companionship. Without this Tenet risks being an ice-cold thriller of all style and no substance. Instead, even without sweeping declarations, Nolan crafts a relationship so genuine between the two that it is hard not to shed a tear with them at the end. With Pattinson and Washington’s measured performances, coupled with Kenneth Branaugh’s cartoonish villain and Elizabeth Debicki’s woman scorned, Nolan’s script becomes an elevated blend of all the age-old but perfect elements for a good film.
Sure, these elements mean ‘Tenet’ is perhaps not as inventive with the genre as Inception (2010) or Memento (2000), but perhaps we’re expecting too much from Nolan. After all, there’s only so many times you can break the formula without becoming formulaic in itself. With Tenet, Nolan takes the formula and has fun with it. And in the time of COVID, when so much of our world has been turned upside down and is unknowable, isn’t it nice to have something even mildly formulaic?