Note: This review has been scanned for viruses.
Cinema’s in such deep shit right now that any big movie put in the unenviable position of re-opening the market after four months of closure would be talked up as the saviour of theatrical exhibition. As cinemas (or theatres, if you insist) have remained closed – the public awake at last to their status as filthy viral hotbeds populated by would-be killers, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller has emerged as the first proper test of audience loyalty.
In any other year his latest act of frenzied auteurism would be one spectacle amongst many. But in 2020, Warners, indeed the entire US industry, are hoping that the director’s pedigree and knack for investing four quadrant templates with pseudo-intellectual respectability, will remind those teetering on agoraphobia and streamaphilia what they’ve been missing.
In keeping with the plot of Nolan’s movie as I imagine it to be, as it’s by no means clear, Tenet (the subtitle – the palindromic spectacular, was dropped) is likely to produce one of two possible outcomes. Either audiences will return to it in cinemas, time and again (ha ha), hoping to unlock the secrets of the fevered conceptualisation on offer; a story laden with layer upon layer of heavy, contradictory and, thanks to a sound mix that privileges the thumping score over dialogue, inaudible exposition, or they’ll conclude that Nolan’s party trick of inserting his head into his colon, all the way to the Adam’s apple, is impressive but not something they want to try and make sense of a second time. The former produces a megahit, the latter a drop off that will prompt some execs to bite down on their suicide capsules.
There is a well-mounted, eye-catching movie here, buoyed by John David Washington’s wry and charismatic lead; essentially Bond with a time travel twist. But as we move between the plush locations, filmed at grand scale, and distended moments of action (setpieces would be too big a word), we’re conscious that the structuring concept lacks focus and clarity.
Nolan’s unable to distil it into a simple expository scene and quest outline (think the blackboard diagram in Back to the Future Part II or the lecture hall briefing in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Instead, the characters spend most of the first hour discussing and developing the conceptual framework, to the point where the plot’s architecture looks like an impossible object. By the time you get to the end, not only are you uncertain how you got out, you can’t be sure how you got in.
All of which may sound like fun, and isn’t it great to be challenged by a blockbuster for a change? But the suspicion that what looks and sounds like bullshit may be just that, lingers and starts to choke the audience as new elements, like timestiles (think turnstiles that enable you to change your direction in time) and ontological paradoxes complicate an already overburdened story.
The core, structuring idea – that you can time travel through a series of events in both directions, is intriguing and an original spin on the big-budget espionage movie, but the who, what and why is much harder to discern. Consequently, orientating yourself in the action and understanding the individual stakes (as opposed to the headline: prevent a madman using time travel to wipe out humanity), is hard work. Hard enough to turn a would-be crowd pleaser into a muddled and frustrating misfire.
Tenet’s grand and ambitious; the kind of approach to filmmaking that’s going to be required if theatrical exhibition has any hope of sustaining spectatorship and justifying ticket prices that are no longer competitive in the streaming age. But if big entertainments want to be respected as intelligent entertainments, they must communicate with audiences clearly, not flit between the abstract and pretentious. Nolan’s flick is bold but heartless; a story shaped by self-indulgence rather than a drive to connect with Joe and Jacinda Public. Not, in short, the movie to remind the fearful cinephile why they fell in love with those movie palaces so long ago.