[Review] “Tenet”: forwards and backwards

[Review] “Tenet”: forwards and backwards

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Back to the temple

After little more than five months of being in lockdown here in London, taking remote clases for my MA and going into campus only for our shoots, I’ve finally been able to go back to the cinema. And logically, the first film I’ve been able to watch on the big screen is “Tenet”, written and directed by the often celebrated —but equally criticised— Christopher Nolan.

Now, the only reason why I decided to go to the cinema is because I considered that the measures taken by the  BFI IMAX were enough to make me feel safe. I know that cinemas are yet to open in Peru —and that they probably won’t come back until 2021—, but if you live in a country in which they’re still operative, I implore you to go only if you think you’ll feel safe. Safety should be first: you should watch a movie while wearing a mask, keeping a certain distance from other attendees and in a well-ventilated place. Otherwise, it would be better if you stayed at home.

[Lee este artículo en español]

My experience at the BFI IMAX, however, was pretty positive. I arrived with a friend —it didn’t seem like a good idea to go as part of a big group, for obvious reasons—, and we approached the entrance, where a person wearing a mask and a visor checked our tickets. We entered; we both had to clean our hands with sanitiser, and we were told to keep a safe distance from other people. Additionally, if we wanted to go to the bathroom —which seemed to be necessary before watching a two and a half hour long film—, it could only be done in groups of two, and once there, only half the urinals and sinks were operational.

But that was only the beginning. Once inside the actual cinema, in the second floor, we found our seats really quickly, knowing that some of them were blocked, meaning that no spectator was going to be next to the other. Fortunately, said rule was enforced: the cinema looked to be operating at 50% capacity, which certainly limited our interactions with other patrons. In general, the cinema seemed to be taking all regulations seriously; bathrooms were being disinfected every thirty minutes, and all workers were wearing masks.

The only truly negative aspect of this experience was that they were still selling pop corn and sodas, which meant that, despite the fact that most people were wearing a mask, many of them removed them in order to eat and/or drink. To be fair, the presence of these people turns the cinema into practically the same (un)safe experience as any pub or restaurant here in London – which were re-opened just over a month ago – but I still would have preferred if they didn’t sell such products. At the very least, viewers were considerate enough not to create too much discomfort for other people.

Nevertheless, the moment one of the cinema employees greeted the audience and pointed toward the exit points, all my worries vanished and I managed to focus on the movie—despite the fact that I was wearing a mask. This might be our “new normal” —and it probably will be the same in Peru whenever cinemas re-open—, so if you plan to return to these kinds of establishments, you will have to get used to it. If none of the aforementioned precautions manage to convince you, or if you think you’ll feel too uncomfortable watching a film while wearing a mask, then you shouldn’t go to the cinema. Again; the important thing here, more than the film itself, is for you to feel safe, and to keep your family safe when you go back home.


So, was “Tenet” worth all the aforementioned efforts? I think everything will depend on the expectations each viewer has for the movie. After being posponed thrice, and after all the comments Nolan himself made about watching a film on the big screen, “Tenet” has acquired an almost mythical quality, being considered as the saviour of the big cinema chains during this global pandemic. But we shouldn’t forget that it is only a movie, and that like any other audio-visual product, it’s going be enjoyed by many a spectator, but also criticised by others.

So, despite the fact that I had fun with “Tenet”, it’s worth mentioning that unreasonable expectations would work against it —no movie, no matter how well-constructed or acted it is, would be able to fulfil the expectations that have been given to Nolan’s latest production. But if you manage to forget, at least for a couple of minutes, about the context in which it’s been released, and its supposed “importance”, you’ll find an apparently simple but sometimes convoluted story; ambitious, frenetic, somewhat cold and very original. It’s the Nolanest movie that ever Nolaned, for better and for worse, and even more so than any of his previous efforts.

Now, considering that “Tenet” hasn’t been released in Peru, and it probably won’t be released in the near future, I WON’T include any spoilers in this review. Nevertheless, it’s virtually impossible to write about the film without mentioning, at the very least, a couple of narrative details —after all, I have to explain something about the movie—, so if you don’t want to know anything about it, I suggest you stop reading and close your browser window.

You have been warned.

Still here?

OK, perfect.

“Tenet”’s protagonist is a man called… “The Protagonist” (John David Washington), who after surviving a heist on the Opera House in Kiev, is recruited by a mysterious organisation that wants to prevent World War III. That’s why he ends up working with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a mysterious and very well-dressed agent, and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the abused wife of a Russian arms trafficker called Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who is using “time inversion” technology to try and destroy the world.

Yes, “time inversion”. It’s a fascinating concept that allows Nolan to present some truly surreal moments, in which people start walking in reverse while others walk in “normal time”; where cars are flipped in reverse and then start moving normally, and buildings explode, are reconstructed, and then implode. This idea is explained in a concise and entertaining manner by Laura (Clémence Poésy), a scientists who teaches the Protagonist to catch bullets with his gun, instead of shooting them… something that works as long as you’ve shot them before. Meaning, in a future that hasn’t happened yet.

Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

Similarly to “Inception”, “Tenet” includes many a scene in which characters explain the concepts that are later used during dynamic action sequences, such as an encounter between the Protagonist, Neil, and two agents wearing masks, or the car chase that has appeared in most of the film’s trailers. Other scenes, such as an aeroplane crashing against a building in the Oslo airport, take place in normal time, but are still rather spectacular —in fact, that scene in particular stands out due to the fact that Nolan decided to crash a real plain, instead of constructing the sequence digitally. Apparently, it was cheaper to crash a real plane, instead of hiring a team of visual effects artists. This says more about how expensive CGI can be, than it does about Nolan’s ambitions as a filmmaker.

“Tenet”, then, ends up being a mixture of cold and functional dialogue sequences and tenser moments, in which characters have to take part in a race against time —or against two different timelines, one of them moving normally, and the other one in reverse—, in order to save the world. It sounds complex, but Nolan makes sure that the viewer is always conscious of what’s happening, keeping only a couple of twists to himself, which are revealed in an effective and truly shocking manner during the third act. The best thing about “Tenet”, though —and this shouldn’t surprise any fan of Nolan— is that it has a consistent internal logic, which means that no narrative contortion feels illogical or absurd. “Tenet” is constructed as precisely and with as much dedication as “Memento” or “Inception” —it’s a Swiss watch, precise and with almost no rusty gears.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that the movie does have some editing problems, especially when it comes to pacing. The first act, for example, feels incredibly rushed, and doesn’t allow the viewer to absorb what’s happening —in fact, it even feels a little disorienting which, considering how convoluted the main plot is, definitely does not help. And the second act, funnily enough, moves at a more lethargic pace, focusing on certain moments that seem to be keeping the Protagonist away from his main objetive. It’s in third act, however, where “Tenet” seems to find a suitable pace, introducing truly memorable action sequences, and closing some of the potentially-confusing narratives threads that were introduced during the first two acts. Some viewers might get a little impatient with “Tenet”, but if they manage to hold on until the ending, they will be rewarded.

Additionally, “Tenet” has some of the problems that, to be fair, now seem to be part of Nolan’s style. Sound mixing, for example, greatly favours Ludwig Göransson’s (“Black Panther”, “The Mandalorian”) soundtrack, which means many dialogue scenes end up being almost impossible to hear. Consider, for example, a boat scene in which the Protagonist, Kat and Andrei are talking about some rather plot-important subjects; between Göransson’s music and the noise of the water against the boat, I couldn’t hear a thing, which is particularly annoying given that I didn’t have any subtitles to help me out (and no, it wasn’t a language thing; the British friend with whom I went to see the movie couldn’t understand the scene either). Add to this scenes in which characters speak while wearing masks (another Nolan classic, although it isn’t as bad here as with Tom Hardy’s Bane), and a good portion of “Tenet” ends up being quite hard to understand.

The fact that none of these problems are big enough to ruin the experience of watching “Tenet” is a testament to Nolan’s talent, both as a director and a writer. If you pay attention, and start to piece things together from the very beginning, you shouldn’t have any problems following the plot of the movie, even during the aforementioned boat scene, or when things become truly insane during the third act of the film. Much like “Inception”, “Tenet” utilises a rather abstract concept in order to construct a fascinating action story, in which elegantly-dressed characters have to fight against mysterious and powerful enemies, in a race against the clock. It’s fascinating, both viscerally and intellectually.

The fact that the “time inversion” concept is being utilised in a creative manner during the action sequences certainly helps. And the actors also help, doing a good job at explaining Nolan’s abstract ideas, but also getting emotionally involved in the story. John David Washington’s Protagonist is a classic Nolan character: elegant, affable, intelligent, and incapable of harming innocent people. Robert Pattinson is great as Neil, stealing most of the scenes in which he appears (and showing, for once and for all, that he’s gonna be a great Bruce Wayne/Batman). Kenneth Branagh plays Sator as a James Bond villain; sadistic, selfish and manipulative. And the always underrated Elizabeth Debicki ends up being the heart of the movie, playing Kat as a woman who’s sick of her way of life, and who’s willing to do anything in order to save her son and escape from her condition as an emotionally and physically abused woman.

Visually spectacular —explosions, reversed bullets, locations all around the world, from Mumbai to London and Olso!—, impeccably acted and thematically ambitious, “Tenet” is everything I expected from a new movie by Christopher Nolan. Yes, it’s got some pacing issues; yes, it takes itself really seriously —although Washington and Pattison did make me laugh a couple of times—, and yes, it does use a little too much “shakycam” during its sequences of close combat, but none of that is enough to ruin such an original and enormous film. To watch “Tenet” on an IMAX screen, with a 70mm projection, was an absolute privilege. If you can do it in a safe manner (I can’t emphasise how important this is), “Tenet” is definitely worth watching on the big screen. It’s movies like this which remind me of the beauty of the cinema experience, infinitely more captivating and hypnotising than any torrent or streaming service. I just hope that the entire planet will be able to return to cinemas very soon; they really are being missed.

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