Tenet

"We're the ones saving the world from what might have been."

I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to do it, in light of the state of the world right now. However, Christopher Nolan was able to release Tenet this year. And I, being the dedicated moviegoer that I am, decided to see it twice this weekend. Here are my thoughts.

Nolan has a knack for creating clever, unique, mind-bending blockbusters. Tenet may rival movies like Inception and Interstellar on that front, having more in common with the former than the latter. It’s action adventure, sci-fi, spy thriller and drama all rolled into a two and a half hour epic.

And while it is similar to Inception in tone, the story dynamics are much different. Both films are exciting adventures set in a near future, where the nature of certain industries, institutions and lifestyles are acutely affected by technological advances that play fast and loose with our perceptions of reality, time and space. However, with Inception the stakes were not as high, more intimate; that movie is about a mind heist and the redemption of a thief. In Tenet, the stakes are much higher. From the start, we know this movie is about a quest to save the world from a bad future.

After a rescue mission goes awry, an elite CIA operative — whom we only know as The Protagonist — finds himself recruited into a clandestine organization and given a new purpose. In this new world of cloak and dagger, he discovers inverted entropy. Objects from the future that, from our perspective, are capable of moving backward in time instead of forward.

This starts off small. Instead of guns firing bullets and causing damage, you have guns that catch bullets and invert damage. Then he learns that the same method can be applied to bigger things, like human beings or weapons of mass destruction. To prevent catastrophe in the past, present and future, our Protagonist must play a dangerous cat and mouse game with a Russian arms dealer carrying out the will of villains who do not yet exist.


I’ll start off with my criticisms first.

For one thing, this movie suffers from the same thing all Christopher Nolan movies after Memento suffer from, which is that the sound quality is quite obnoxious. I’m beginning to think Nolan values the music and sound effects of his movies more than he does the audience’s ability to actually understand the dialogue he writes, which is usually delivered in whispers or from actors with heavy accents or both; and in the case of this movie, characters' voices are frequently muffled by breathing masks. And this is all amidst a booming score.

The pacing is also an issue. While the film’s flow is consistent, it moves so fast that I imagine many viewers will have trouble keeping up with the heady ideas and the stream of complex information we’re getting with every scene. I didn’t realize how many aspects of the dialogue and plot I missed out on until I saw the film a second time.

And there were times I found myself a bit confused as to the actual physics and logistics of this version of time travel. But that ends up happening with most time travel movies I watch.

On the whole though, I think this movie is excellent. Having seen it twice, I was completely engaged and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

In fact, this might be one of Christopher Nolan's most effective films. While movies like The Prestige and Interstellar are probably his true masterpieces, I think he's truly in his element when making movies like this and Inception. Fun summer blockbusters that challenge our minds as well as ignite our imaginations, centered around a particularly enthralling gimmick. With Inception, he took concepts most often seen in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and applied it to a heist thriller not unlike Ocean's 11. With Tenet, we're seeing something of a mish-mash between The Terminator and 007.

I really dug that combination.

No matter how many times I found myself trying to find similarities between this and films like Terminator, 12 Monkeys, Deja Vu, Primer or Looper, the one thing it kept reminding me of was a James Bond movie. Tenet has all the same trappings: gunfights and car chases, infiltration and espionage, fancy suits and alluring women, mixing real technology with sci-fi tech, exotic locales, a diabolical villain who threatens the world; the only thing missing is the sex appeal, which makes sense because these are all very professional people who really don't have time to fool around. The Protagonist is the sort of snarky, all-purpose badass you would expect Bond to be, as well.

Another unexpected parallel I found was within the relationship between The Protagonist, the villain Andrei Sator and Kat, Sator's long-suffering wife. A lot of the film plays like a less graphic version of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover set against a sci-fi backdrop. Not to say I minded this, of course. It was an element I was not expecting, but which gave the film a bit more weight. The Protagonist becomes just as invested in protecting Kat and her son's future from Sator as he is with protecting the rest of the world.

Beyond that, though, Nolan is a master at weaving stories together with a series of pulse-pounding setpieces. In this movie, he gets especially creative with that. The one that most people are talking about is the scene where a real 747 airplane crashes into an airport hanger and explodes. But there are so many dynamic scenes like this. Events in Nolan movies are typically not without purpose. In Tenet, everything is connected, with events seen early on segueing beautifully with events that happen much later in the film. And what's most amazing is that nearly all of this is accomplished without the excessive use of CGI.

Tenet also has some of the wittiest dialogue and most ingenious plotting I've seen in a Nolan film. He clearly had fun making this.

So is it a bit convoluted? Probably. Will it make your head hurt? A little bit. Is it a unique, visceral, electrifying experience? Hell yeah. If you can see it safely on a big screen somewhere, I highly recommend it.


Bits and pieces:

* People who are fans of palindromes might be really into this movie and its incorporation of the Sator Square, if there are such people.

* I should commend the actors. John David Washington is very effective as The Protagonist; I'm reminded that I still need to see BlacKKKlansman. If people needed any more proof that James Bond could be a black man, Washington provides it here in this movie. Though he's impressed me before, this may be the most likable Robert Pattinson role I've seen so far; his character Neil is cool, suave and full of surprises. It also might be the most impressive acting I've seen out of Kenneth Branagh as well, because he is chilling as the nihilistic bad guy Andrei Sator. The true emotional core of the movie is held by Elizabeth Debicki as Kat; Debicki is another actor who continues to stand out more with each film I see her in. And there are brief but enjoyable appearances by Michael Caine as a go-between for the Protagonist, Aaron-Taylor Johnson and Fiona Douriff as paramilitary agents who specialize in inverted warfare, and Clemence Poesy as the scientist who introduces us to the concept of inverted entropy.

* And despite my issues with the audio quality, the film’s score by Ludwig Gorannson is top notch stuff. Sleek, rapid and pulsating.

* The film ended up being more timely than I imagined. Perhaps more than Nolan himself even intended. Many have already pointed out that this is the first of his films to feature a main character who isn’t a white guy, as well as one of the few (the other being Interstellar) in which the main female character has more involvement in the plot beyond just aiding the male heroes. The villain is a selfish, coldblooded, misogynistic Russian oligarch who is willing to condemn the rest of the world for his own self-interest. The effects of climate change are addressed. And the plot requires the characters to wear masks for a good chunk of the film.

* Oddly, on a superficial level, this movie reminded me of Wild Wild West. Kenneth Branagh is the tyrannical villain with a thick accent, the main characters are a black action hero and his more intellectual partner, and a woman tied to the plot by a loved one held hostage by Branagh. Instead of using a giant mechanical spider to destroy America, Branagh’s using time travel to try to destroy everything. I guess it’s debatable as to which movie leaves you with more to chew on.

Quotes:

The Protagonist: We live in a twilight world…
Well-Dressed Man: …
The Protagonist: (aims gun) We live in a twilight world
Well-Dressed Man: … and there are no friends at dusk.

Victor: We’re in a cold war. Cold as ice. To even know its nature is to lose. All I have for you is a word: Tenet. It’ll open up the right doors, but some of the wrong ones too.

Barbara: Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Neil: Time isn’t the problem. Getting out alive is the problem.

Neil: I think the building could be bungie-jumpable.
The Protagonist: I don’t think bungie-jumpable is a word.

Priya: To get close to Sator will take a fresh-faced protagonist. And you’re fresh as a daisy.

Andrei Sator: Do you sail?
The Protagonist: I've been known to fool around on boats.

The Protagonist: Lying is the Standard Operating Procedure.

Neil: What’s happened, happened.

I can't fully articulate why I liked this movie so much and I know it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it certainly worked for me. Four out of five inverted bullets.

3 comments:

Billie Doux said...

Sold. This sounds like *exactly* my cup of tea. Thank you for a terrific review, Logan.

Josie Kafka said...

I'm so excited to watch this from the safety of my couch when that's an option. Not only to avoid contagion, but also so I can use the closed captioning to my heart's content. Nolan is such a fan of beautiful visuals...why not audible dialogue?!

Logan Cox said...

Billie, as always, thank you.

Josie, you're probably right. At home with the subtitles on and a good sound system would be the ideal way to watch it. There are just some movies I just know I'll hate myself for not seeing on a big screen, and this looked like one of them.