“We live in a Twilight World.”
“And there are no friends at dusk.”
It has been six months since theatres closed. The longest gap in moviegoing for me in twenty years. Yet it does not feel long ago my father and I went to see The Invisible Man. Not a bad film to go out on. Despite doubts I pushed myself to go see Tenet. With social distancing measures, a KFLA-okay, and one active case in the region, I risked it. Christopher Nolan wants us to be loyal to movie theatres. But have they been loyal to us? The experience is a treasure, but it has been telling me to leave for awhile. No enforcement of loud talkers or disruptive smartphone users. Here it was the obnoxious boyfriend that refused to put on the mask. This despite everyone and his girlfriend doing so. As Bane would intimate, I do not care for him. Having been away there’s no sentiment to returning, only guilt in going. Tenet will be the last movie I see in theatres for some time. Barring a game-changing trailer and zero active cases I won’t risk coming out for Dune in December. Family can wait for F9. It’s the movies I miss, not the format.
Time Warner for the record has not done their part. Universal went to PVOD & Disney to streaming. Sony and Paramount opted to sell out to Apple and Netflix. When will Warner Bros. comprehend the lessons of Interstellar, do something socially responsible and learn to adapt? I hope the film’s performance stops the threat of movie-going COVID-spread. TENET might be a core belief to save cinemas in Hollywood but it is not worth risking your life over. Wiser film fanatics have stayed home and so did the brains behind this organization.
Here is what you are missing with Tenet, as there are minor variations on the Nolan playbook. Time travel or “Inversion” is the central gimmick to the story. Its hair pin structure should play like a larger self-reflexive Memento. Instead it unfolds like a wrinkled Arrival. It’s style out of step for Nolan. Unfashionable after a near-flawless twenty year run. Might it be time for Denis Villeneuve to take over the populist filmmaking mantel? If six time collaborator Hans Zimmer fled to him for Dune you can too. Academy Award Winner Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther) nonetheless makes a capable substitute. Composing memorable themes that tune the audience into the action. The work is reminiscent of Zimmer. The action itself is among the best of Nolan’s career. Hoyte Van Hotema (Dunkirk, Interstellar) lenses it in a clear but cramped manner. The ideas behind it however aren’t as strong this time around. It is the least heady Nolan film and also his worst. If Dunkirk tread between order and chaos Tenet gets a little… entropic. Nolan has lost the chief collaborators that propelled his biggest ideas forward. Among them co-writer/ brother Jonathan Nolan, Cinematographer Wally Pfister, and Editor Lee Smith. Lacking the layers of Inception or the thin cover of Dunkirk, the film’s writing flaws are also untenable. For a film about a literal race against time it lacks flow. Jennifer Lame (Hereditary, Marriage Story) cuts the concept to one-hundred fifty minutes. Two longer than Inception and only fifteen shorter than The Dark Knight Rises. Tenet requires something like the emotional temporal editing of Little Women to work. Yet as we venture deeper with Nolan, the emotional tissue between his characters wane. Case-in-point: his protagonist is called The Protagonist. Michael Caine is a clunky fit in a cameo meant to set up the film but instead gives us vague non-sequiturs. Kenneth Branagh as the evil Sator is the only one (including the audience) who seems to know what the hell is going on. Yet at a point even he becomes baffled. Here it seems Nolan, under pressure from Warner Brothers is scrambling to come up with big ideas. The finale is a confusing colour coordinated mess you’d expect from a colour-blind man. Like his last film the beginning is the best. If he isn’t careful, this film might mark the beginning of his end.
2020 seems like a natural revertive state for Nolan. Despite its marketing parlance the variations within Tenet push no new cinematic boundaries. The core issue of Tenet is that its central ‘inversion’ idea never visually or even literally pays off. The movie is also completely devoid of subtext. It is a confusing mess, but at least it is never dull. Its best hook is a scene that plays out twice: forwards and backwards. Although anyone that has seen movies before might suggest the twist coming a mile away. If only doubling back on itself allowed the movements to click. I kept waiting for it to happen but in the end I realized it hasn’t happened yet.
Working with a much younger cast another weakness becomes clear: the sexless direction. Nolan at least guarantees some style points with his leads. John David Washington (5’9) brings a fierce physicality on a level I do not think I’ve seen before. A kitchen confrontation has him dispatch foes with an uncommon intensity and ease. A former college football running back who signed with the St. Louis Rams, the man is fast. Washington said the stunts required him draw on his athletic background. And he serves as the strongest personality asset to a Nolan film since Tom Hardy. He has the cool his famous father has but with a reachable every-man quality. Elizabeth Debicki (6’3) as Kat is a towering and graceful Femme Fatale. If not for her presence the role might fall into the standard female victim territory. But working with Nolan she displays the confidence of Marion Cotillard. Finally Branagh recycles his Russian accent from Shadow Recruit to cartoonish crediblility. All pain and no Bane he cannot be taken seriously. He wants to watch the world burn and given the state of things can we blame him? This ‘out of control’ COVID-curing cinema plot is the one JGL from Inception warned us about.
Hot Take: Tenet plays like Inception with half the layers missing.
Continuum: -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3