Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine
Austin Family Critical Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: 3 of 5 stars
It’s hard to write about Christopher Nolan’s massive new film, “Tenet,” without acknowledging the circumstances under which it has been released. While nearly every other planned theatrical release over the past six months has been pushed back or tossed into the streaming abyss, Nolan has stood firm on his mission to open “Tenet” in cinemas. This comes as no surprise. Nolan, like his contemporaries Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, has always championed the theatrical experience and opted to shoot on large-format film. As a result, “Tenet” has become a symbol – not only the film to reopen cinemas in the wake of the ongoing pandemic, but the one to potentially save them altogether.
What’s so delightful about “Tenet” being the film to bring moviegoers back to the cinema is just how dense, strange and not easily digestible the movie is. Don’t get me wrong – “Tenet” is not an art house picture that will confound the masses. This is a wildly entertaining thriller with more impressive action set pieces than any film in recent memory – but it also takes you down a heady rabbit hole of quantum physics.
To put it simply, with this film, the director has gone full-Nolan. Seeing that audiences were up to the challenge of grappling with the high concept world building of “Inception” (2010) and “Interstellar” (2014), Nolan ups the ante here and asks us to rise to the occasion. And we do, because the intricacy and puzzle-like nature of his films are part of their appeal.
I’ll attempt to describe the film with as few spoilers as possible (although it’s tough to actually spoil this movie in any meaningful way – the length of time it would take to describe the labyrinth plot would likely match the run-time of the actual movie).
John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, a CIA agent who is thrust into a covert operation to stop Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from acquiring world-threatening artifacts through time inversion. What’s inversion? Well, the CIA is discovering objects – primarily bullets – that are moving backward through time. They believe they’re looking at debris from an oncoming disaster caused by Sator, who has access to a Turnstile machine that allows him to move back through time and acquire these artifacts.
The wizardry of every sequence in this film is breathtaking, but it’s once The Protagonist and his associate, Neil (an excellent Robert Pattinson), go through the Turnstile machine and start moving backward through time that “Tenet” truly takes off in a stunningly original direction. Frankly, the spectacle of watching these characters plow forward in a world in which everything else is moving in reverse (from their perspective) is overwhelming on the senses.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything. I certainly didn’t. Although, when pieces of information that initially befuddled me suddenly clicked into place later in the film, I felt rewarded. But I left the cinema exhilarated because I knew I had felt and experienced something monumental. Part of that is simply the experience of seeing “Tenet” on the big screen. I don’t care how sophisticated one’s home cinema set-up is – a movie always has a greater power and impact in a darkened cinema. But it also has to do with the fact that Tenet is so immersive. I found myself so caught up in the emotional trajectory and narrative momentum that I was happy to let questions go unanswered.
If “Tenet” sounds like it causes a headache, don’t worry – it’s also very fun. The playful comradery between Washington and Pattinson is delightful, and the wonderful Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Sator’s wife Kat, grounds the film whenever it risks getting caught up in the plot mechanizations. There’s even a welcome appearance by Nolan’s lucky charm, Sir Michael Caine. “Tenet” also shares with “Inception” a giddy fascination with heists, and boy, do we get our money’s worth of them in this movie.
The things that people don’t like about Nolan’s films – namely, the dialogue-heavy explaining of concepts and ideas – are here in spades. Personally, I love these qualities. If I may sidetrack for a moment, the same year that Nolan released Interstellar, we also got the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything.” Despite being about one of the most lauded physicists of all time, “The Theory of Everything” doesn’t try to explain Hawking’s work or why it was important. The film sprinkles in a few shots of equations written on chalkboards, and then basically says, “Trust us, he’s a genius.” Meanwhile, Nolan attempts to explain to us how black holes work within the typically risk-averse confines of a Hollywood blockbuster. I may not have understood everything in “Interstellar,” but at least the filmmaker was treating me like an adult and engaging me with the scientific content of the film. He achieves the same thing with “Tenet”.
Many people lauded Nolan’s last movie, “Dunkirk” (2017), as being one of his finest films because of its lack of exposition – it was a purely cinematic story told through visuals. Having proven he can direct a tightly-structured, straightforward narrative (though he still made “Dunkirk” into a high-concept film about time, thematically uniting it with his other work), it almost feels like “Tenet” is his return to doing the kind of film that he was born to make – wildly ambitious, unabashedly intricate and pushing the boundaries of what we expect from conventional entertainment.
I’m fascinated by filmmakers who, rather than back away from the style that both defines them and earns them detractors, go even further with their sensibilities. I’m thinking of directors like Wes Anderson, whose interest in artifice intensifies with each new film, or Terrence Malick, who continues to experiment with cinema as a form of poetry. With “Tenet,” Nolan has crafted a gigantic piece of entertainment in which he further expands upon his fascination with time. We’re lucky enough to get invited along to the party.
“Tenet” is rated PG-13 for intense action sequences, some of which include gun violence. Though the violence isn’t graphic or gratuitous, this is still a PG-13 film that earns the rating. I would recommend the film for ages thirteen and above.
A note on the theatrical experience in the age of COVID-19:
As I sat watching “Tenet” at the Regal Gateway & IMAX Theatre, spaced comfortably apart from my fellow moviegoers, I thought to myself – the cinema experience isn’t going anywhere. Or, to put it more bluntly, we can’t let it.
I would never be presumptuous enough to tell people what they should feel safe or unsafe doing – that’s for you to decide (obviously, if you feel unwell or have been around someone feeling unwell, don’t go to the cinema). I can only speak to my personal experience, and for what it’s worth, I felt safe.
Right now, cinemas in Austin are allowed to operate at no more than 50% capacity. In most theaters, the two seats to your left and right are blocked off once you purchase your seats. For extra precaution, I picked a showtime in the mid-afternoon to avoid crowds, purchased seats near the back of the auditorium, and had two friends that I knew had been social distancing join me. Because we each bought our own tickets separately, we sat a few seats apart from one another and had almost the entire row to ourselves. The rows in front of us and behind us were blocked off. This may sound like a lot of trouble. Was it worth it? To this cinephile, yes.
Austin has a storied history of great cinemas. Not all of them are open yet, but I suspect most of them will reopen their doors within the next few months. In addition to the Regal Cinemas chains, there’s also the unique experience of the Alamo Drafthouse cinemas, where the enthusiasm of moviegoing is contagious. We have the historic Paramount Theatre, the downtown Violet Crown Cinema, the IMAX screen at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, the non-profit AFS Cinema and its dedicated film community, and the AMC Barton Creek Square cinema. These are cultural institutions we can’t afford to lose. They are the life and blood of this city, as much as any music venue or restaurant. I’m excited for them to return in the safest way manageable, and if you feel safe and comfortable going as you take on the precautions and responsibilities that come with spending time in a public space, now is a great time to support them.
Reviewed by Jack Kyser, a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.