Review: Tenet (and returning to the cinema)

It’s been ages since I published anything, even though I posted weekly for six weeks with the #30DayFilmChallenge – yet another sign of how quickly this mad year has gone.

But with UK cinemas reopening, lockdown easing and Cineworld bringing in stringent restrictions (it sounds as if I had a good experience booking in Witney, as others have not been spaced out properly), I took the opportunity presented by Christopher Nolan – rather dangerously and desperately, at least when it comes to American cinemas – to see his brand new blockbuster Tenet in late August.

Before you read what I thought, you might be interested to read my experience in this new COVID-19 world – in case you were considering going back, but weren’t sure whether it was safe.

Trepidation and excitement

These two words summed up how I was feeling when I booked, as I had no idea if the screening would be more full than is safe, or whether I’d be sat near someone else. I made sure to book a screening in the smaller screen available, which has rows of two seats down one side – taking one of those for myself; and turned up with my face mask on.

The cinema foyer was strange, but comfortingly so – the staff and other cinemagoers had masks on, sanitiser was everywhere and perspex screens were up (as well as the obligatory floor stickers). One particularly impressive element of the Cineworld experience was that on going to enter the screens, the staff made you get the QR code ticket up on your phone (I’ve been using those for years, so no difficulties there), put the phone in a box on a table separating you from them, and then scan the code without touching it.

I entered the screen, and now you’ll have two awful pictures to show where I was and how I watched it.

This shows both how close to the screen I was, and that nobody was sat in front of me
Apologies for the awful photo, but it illustrates the lack of people/amount of space I had

I had nobody sat behind or in front of me on my side, though all the other cinemagoers were sat at the ends of the longer rows in front of one another across the aisle. I thought this was odd, and so I’d warn anyone that this might be the case (I imagine Cineworld believe that there’s a metre between rows, though this is something they ought to address).

I totally appreciate people not wanting to go back, but I felt safe and it felt hygienic to me, and better than the shops I’ve visited (Cineworld had also sensibly decided to turn the aircon/heating off). My fellow cinemagoers (those I could see, anyway) only removed their face masks for food and drink, as did I – and I would say that there was a maximum of 10 people in there with me (this was the second day of release, over a week and a half ago, so it’s likely to be quieter now, especially since the schools have gone back).

A real boost

Personally, I thought they handled social distancing and hygiene very well. As you’ll no doubt know by now, it’s irritating to wear a mask for a couple of hours (particularly with a few days’ facial hair – extreme beard itch occured) but to be honest being able to safely see a film was a huge psychological boost after six months – I’ve never gone that long in adult life without seeing something at the cinema!

When the prologue to the movie began, the sound mix was so intense (this is a Nolan standard) that I genuinely felt my heart race. That’s not something that happens to me often at the cinema – was it because I had forgotten how loud it could be in six months away, or was it this plus Nolan’s mental sound mix volume?

Some of the action scenes gave me a (positive) emotional high I’ve not had often in 2020 either for obvious reasons – maybe it’s because it was the thrill of seeing a big film, or just being a nerd and getting swept up in it all, but this really is an experience I had missed. As long as other films can be released, cinemas stay open and people follow the rules, I’ll be there for the other blockbusters due to come out in the next few months.

So onto Tenet – the latest original blockbuster from Nolan, the last director who can get a £200m blockbuster made that’s not an adaptation, part of a franchise or a sequel. At the absolute peak of his game, even with narrative issues, there is nobody else left who has the clout to make films like these, apart from James Cameron.

The important thing to note is that both are capable of making heart stopping action – but Nolan nearly always provides big films that force viewers to use their brains, as anyone who has seen Inception, Interstellar and Memento can attest to. Tenet is perhaps, except Memento, the most complex that he’s made so far, but also a rip roaring, thrilling and intense experience that has more resonance given its solo position in the summer blockbuster season.

A US special forces/CIA soldier (John David Washington) takes part in an anti terror raid, and comes out of it worse off. He is then given, as his next mission, one word – ‘Tenet’ – and an interlocked hand gesture, and told cryptically to find out more. He uncovers along the way a truly mad new conflict that could truly be world ending, because it concerns time.

I can’t be any less cryptic than that, because this film is BANANAS and to give any more of the plot to you would negate the brain-frying experience of seeing/feeling/being deafened by it, as well as trying to understand a lot of it. While a lot of reviews make the point that it’s almost too complex, the film unfurls around the halfway mark (which, when you watch it, is very clever synchronicity), and suddenly the things you didn’t think made sense make sense.

This is not a brainless action film. It is absolutely concerned with using science (in this case, very speculative science) to give us action we’ve not seen before, and a cinematic experience we’ve not had. Inception did the same, and it appears Nolan – as a student of films big and small – has a determination to make action-drama-thrillers that revolve around time and our perception of it.

In that sense, Tenet is almost the peak of this endeavour, and it’s no surprise that he wrote the script. I doubt that when it comes to subjects like this, with the clout he has at Warner Brothers, that he wants anyone else to write something that he’s devised. This ends up being for better and for worse, but in terms of pure plot and construction it’s a huge win – I saw things that had me laughing with awe.

I missed one huge revelation until the film was just about concluded – when my brain eventually clicked – but otherwise followed it all. I’d be interested to hear if others didn’t, but I respect him for not pandering to brainless cinema when he can just make something this intricate (like a pocketwatch, hmm…) that gets the audience to truly challenge themselves.

However – his usual emotional coldness is present and correct, though there are hints that this iceman is melting a little. Washington’s protagonist and Robert Pattinson’s Neil have a fun, comedic interplay that feels more Bond like than Nolan usually provides, but once more a female character is the emotional heart yet the stereotype.

I don’t know why he struggles with female characters, and full credit to Elizabeth Debicki because she does a lot to stop the film from being a cold fish. But it’s a shame he hasn’t quite cracked making a female character anything other than either: the sad, emotional woman worried about losing something/who’s lost something; the dead wife; or the doomed wife or partner who is soon to die. Maybe one day we’ll have a female Nolan protagonist, but until then this is a real sticking point.

Another writing quibble comes from the way he stages exposition – a lot of the time, the construction helps to blunt these scenes where two characters explain everything or ask the questions we want to know the answers to. But in a couple of scenes, explanations are given and also palmed off with “try not to think about it”, which defeats the object.

You should probably commit to the hard sci-fi or just ignore it altogether, which appears to be where that particular comment comes in. If it hadn’t followed or been followed by detailed explanation, it wouldn’t have annoyed me as much! Essentially, I think Nolan’s scripts could always do with another person’s eyes or input, but I suppose he controls what he wants.

Technically, this film can’t be faulted much – from my perspective anyway! The aforementioned sound mix has been criticised and questioned – and I am inclined to agree, given how nuts it was on Interstellar and Dunkirk. Again, this is how Nolan wants you to hear the film, but it’s a nightmare when two characters are shouting, in helmets or masks, with gunfights or explosions, plus the searingly loud soundtrack.

In terms of its action, this film is pure Nolan – gunshots give you a heart attack, they’re so loud, while he appears to have learned from the Batman trilogy and now focused on making clear and easy to view action (as much of Hollywood seems to post John Wick and Fury Road).

What sets this apart is that the huge budget has gone into effects and stunts that are decidedly practical – and anybody who’s read my reviews knows how big a deal this is for me. There is so little CGI that is obvious, which is brilliant – it could have been used, but the fact that you can’t see it means it’s doing its job perfectly.

From a concussive and intense opening siege through to a clever motorway heist and warped chase, even the smaller action scenes feel incredibly tangible. But the highlights are a REAL plane being destroyed in an unpredictable way, and then a huge armed conflict in an abandoned city that seems to breach cinematic rules.

What I’m dancing around here is the way time is used – you really do have to see the film to understand what I mean. You’re seeing things happen concurrently that you don’t expect to, and putting multiple things in the frame that are often running counter to one another. It’s incredibly clever, and relies heavily on the excellent work of editor Jennifer Lame.

She and the effects people and stuntmen have achieved something quite remarkably uncanny to watch, but nonetheless very obviously real. And the hilarious thing is is that it’s obvious how it was done, at times – but the times it isn’t, you do wonder why nobody has thought of doing this before.

To have worked with Nolan for the first time as Lame has, she has done award worthy work just to drag his vision onto the screen, while at the same time managing to juggle multiple timelines at once to raise the film to that dramatic tension we’ve come to expect from Nolan. These crescendos become unbelievably uncomfortable as they peak, and the interlocking, dovetailing collisions of action and plot perfectly connect.

As I mentioned before, the conclusion is the absolute peak of the mind bending action, and the editing allows you to understand what’s going on while also understanding the urgency of the action and the intercut, very slow paced but just as tense and important concurrent plotline. Lame fills predecessor Lee Smith’s shoes with ease.

Hoyte van Hotyema’s cinematography complements this by giving the world a gritty, metallic sheen in keeping with tangibility, using new(ish) locations for US cinema (Estonia features heavily, along with Mumbai and the Amalfi coast) to give this a strong Bondian feel, with a twist.

The nature of the plot means he has to work hard to make certain parts feel uncanny but similar, and the lighting becomes cleverly transposed – almost bleached – visually unsettling you as the film’s true aims become clear. Colour is also cleverly used, almost calling back to The Matrix in one particularly strong scene.

But anyone who knows me knows I am a movie soundtrack GEEK, and Ludwig Goransson – if you don’t know of his work already – is the young pretender or heir to John Williams and Hans Zimmer. His work on Black Panther won him an Oscar because it brought together African beats and instruments with orchestral strings and a hip hop sensibility – perfectly splicing that film’s focuses together.

He’s continued by almost stealing the Star Wars mantle with his Western influenced, unbelievably catchy music for The Mandalorian, and yet here he has changed the game. No tricks like Zimmer’s Inception score, but Goransson has crafted a pulsating, epic, booming and immersive electro-orchestral score that seems perfectly Nolan.

When boomed out in the cinema with the action and sound mix, it is an aural assault. There are Zimmeresque hints (that’s a legacy of Inception for all cinema) but Goransson’s electro, hip hop sensibilities work perfectly to give everything an extra layer of tense discomfort or urgency. Some thematic elements sound like the band Muse, while others call to mind Wakanda, the world of Inception, thumping dance music and more.

This is a score that will rub some up the wrong way, but my god I had it running through my head after I left the cinema, and it’s just been released so naturally I’ve got it on repeat. Needless to say, while Zimmer was busy Goransson has snuck in and shown that at a young age he can take on intense projects, and give us something truly unprecedented but perfect for cinema or TV.

So onto the actors, and as mentioned above, the film is emotionally cold but not as arctic as some of Nolan’s others. Washington’s character is never named, and while that’s deliberate on Nolan’s part it seems to take a bit of the relatability from him – but the actor, taking on a huge role after his breakout in BlacKKKlansman – defines his character with wit and cool, calm, collected behaviour even in conflict.

I mentioned Bond earlier, and this film does feel like a Nolan Bond really – with Washington embodying the steely, driven nature of 007. What he brings is a more easygoing side, a man in over his head but equipped with the skills and intuition to quickly adjust. What defines him in a human sense are interactions with Pattinson’s Neil, Debicki and Kenneth Branagh, and particularly with the two former actors he has an emotional connection that perhaps could have been expanded for a warmer overall feel.

His interplay with Pattinson is the comedic centre (not that comedic, but for Nolan it’s almost a laugh riot), mostly because the British actor plays an aloof British secret agent with hidden layers, jokes and quips between two men who know how to get shit done and in the right way. Pattinson is now re-entering the blockbuster world after acclaim in the indie sphere (pre his COVID diagnosis, which I hope he recovers from soon), and I think he’s great as the sidekick (with more depth than the lead).

As mentioned, the heart comes from Debicki’s character, the wife of Kenneth Branagh’s sociopathic Russian oligarch villain, Andrei Sator. Debicki’s Kat is defined by her relationship, but the Australian actress has the luck of having a motivation and focus, her character driven by protecting her son at all costs and making interesting alliances.

Her story ends perhaps most satisfyingly of all, and it’s because despite the character’s paper thin development (and identical story to Debicki’s role in The Night Manager) the actress gives her steeliness and heart in the few scenes she has a chance to do so, Kat eventually surprising you in how far she goes to get what she wants.

Branagh is a strange choice for a chilling Russian billionaire, but the famous Brit director and actor is uncomfortably sinister and unnerving. I can’t speak for how bad his accent is – that’s for Russian people to critique – but he drifts in and out of the narrative like a shark, and should play cold blooded villains more often.

He also gives Sator a tinge of humanity when it comes to his motivations, which gives the film a really interesting spin when you consider it afterwards. We often see world weary characters in cinema, but Sator feels different in the sense that his motivations are small but his aims are unimaginably vast.

Of the wider supporting cast, Indian actress Dimple Kapadia plays enigmatic character Priya Singh, who is more than she appears to be in interwoven scenes, and a mix of wry mirth and steely calm. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is better than I’ve seen him before as gruff British military bod Ives, probably because he’s not playing an American or European at last!

I enjoyed the spin he gives the film when he turns up, a believably gritty, UK soldier both amiable and stern, especially in knowing the ins and outs of a complex situation and not being arsed to have to bring others up to speed, or despairing at others going against what he recommends.

A quick mention also for Himesh Patel’s witty helper who assists Neil and the protagonist in their increasingly insane schemes, and Nolan’s muse Michael Caine, who gamely turns up as an older British secret service operative in a comedic cameo.

It’s a lot to take in, and if you’re at the cinema it’ll be a sensory overload, but for me Tenet was a bombastic, truly unique return to the cinema. I can see how it will divide people (it already has), but I can assuredly say it’s the best film I’ve seen in 2020 (out of the few I’ve seen!).

If you’re confident enough to go, I recommend seeing this in the cinema for the full sensory overload experience – it’s a shame it’s come out this year when few will get that chance, but regardless it’s an incredible film that I was swept away by.

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