When I saw Dunkirk for the first time, it felt like something changed for Christopher Nolan. He’s had one of the more watched and closely calculated career trajectories of anyone in the business and each film seems to accomplish something specific in carving out space for himself and his time contortions.

In Dunkirk, he made a full film utilizing his Climactic Cascade. A war film told temporally in order to challenge the idea of seeing a war film and provide a different sensory experience. The effect there is to immerse yourself deeper. No exposition. The characters don’t know what’s going on. They’re just moving forward. Why? Because they have to. Because that’s what war is. That’s how it feels. If you let go of your need for control as a movie watcher and let the ride take you, that’s how it feels.

It was a big shift for Nolan. Moving away from the conventions of blockbuster filmmaking, of film school seminars on three-act structure and the importance of character. Away from the criticisms of emotional coldness. Because he never promised that to anyone. If anything, Nolan’s career has always been about showing us that emotion isn’t the ONLY way to engage a viewer. His last four films were about the common man’s duty to step up for society and the future and the last two are told without trying to use or rely on emotional architecture to sell the point. Rather accessing the brain than the heart.

With Dunkirk, he started moving towards something more distilled and abstract and off-center. Seeing Dunkirk, I remember being excited by the possibility of a new sci-fi from the man now that he’d thrown off narrative constraints and started making films the purely cerebral way he clearly wants to be.

And now here comes Tenet. In interviews, Nolan spoke about how while he normally has his cast/crew watch particular films to give everyone an idea of what to aim at, here he didn’t. He spoke about using the memories of the spy genre to inform. How they feel, how you remember them.

The palette for Tenet is the feeling and evocation of the spy genre. The goal, at least somewhat, is to create with visuals and sound, the feeling of being in a spy movie.

So here we are and the end result is a purely kinetic and cerebral film that moves FAST and LOUD. It drops you into the middle of the action…and that’s it. Guns are blazing and we’re following our Protagonist, who doesn’t know what’s going on. Neither do we.

And, because he’s good at his job, once he starts to figure it out, he just keeps moving. There’s no hour-long introductory phase like in Inception to slowly handhold us and walk us through everything that’s going to happen. It just happens and we are told repeatedly to just go with it, that it’ll make more sense as it goes along, and that you can’t worry too much about the specifics because they really are the least important component.

And if it were a James Bond movie, we wouldn’t need to be told that. We’d nod along to a complex villain plot and plan to stop them that we‘re not really following or connecting to and when Bond starts getting closer to his target, we realize more clearly what precisely he is doing and trying to prevent. We get engaged when it matters.

But this isn’t a Bond movie, it’s a Nolan movie. So even more so, he tells us to not worry about the details and just experience it, as we did with Dunkirk.

Because the movie is loud, fast, disorienting, confusing, and so on and so on. But that’s what the experience is like for the characters as well, we’re just being made to feel the same way as we are dragged along for the ride.

Nolan is a filmmaker of the generation that grew up with the awareness that their films would be revisited on home video. Multiple viewings, rewinding, etc, are suddenly a factor. He always makes movies you can come back to. Where you’ll get something new the second and third time. It’s not made to ONLY work once and be done.

But Tenet, by design, almost doesn’t even start until the end credits roll and it’s time to watch it again.

We go through the first half with no idea what’s going on, it’s explained in the second half, and when it ends you realize how the second viewing is meant to work.

It’s almost as if the entire film is an opening crawl describing the world, characters, technology, and stakes. AND then, if you choose to rewatch, you’ll have a wild time seeing where it goes. Even though you know. There’s a better way I could explain this but I won’t be the one to spoil it in an opening review.

Tenet certainly isn’t for everyone. Personally, as much as I understand the harsh and fast editing, I wished it could have been a little more paced out. Also, personally, I didn’t have a problem with the sound mix. I know it’s hard to hear everything everyone’s saying but I can’t hear everything everyone’s saying in real life and if I was surrounded by explosions and gunfire and on the run, I wouldn’t be picking up everything along the way.

It’s an experiential sound mix not a narrative one.

But still, I understand. The whole film feels like whiplash and if you don’t want to go along with it, you’ll have a bad time and wonder why you went. The film certainly has a lot of baggage. Even if there weren’t a pandemic making the possibility of going to the theatre terrifying, and even if the film hadn’t been made the last bastion of a theatre-going future, there’s always the loud and horrible contingent of Nolan bros lurking around, ready to ruin everyone’s time and make any discussion of the film a miserable one.

But if you can stomach the theatre and you can block out those idiots, if you’re a fan of what Nolan has dedicated his career to—elevating the blockbuster and finding new and innovative ways to evolve the very concept of entertaining an audience— then give Tenet a go. Give it two.

We drove to Las Vegas to see this in an empty IMAX theatre on a Tuesday. If it weren’t a seven-hour round trip, I’d be back in the theatre tomorrow to actually finally WATCH the film.

Instead, I’ll wait and think about it some more, and eagerly anticipate the next time I can dig around in Nolan’s sandbox.

I think he’s probably done with purely narrative cinema. I think this and Dunkirk are the future of his filmography. Maybe it’s going to be more divisive and less easily digestible in a commercial space. Maybe his shadow shortens and his leash tightens as less go along with him on his experiential cerebral adventures. But I’m excited about it. I don’t know that I’ve seen anything quite like Tenet before. It was challenging in a way I didn’t know existed before I watched it. And it was exciting to see what a master storyteller can do at the height of their power. He can make anything he wants and he made this. It’s not a mistake. It’s not an accident. The decisions are intentional. And personally speaking, I find it more interesting to engage with those decisions than fight them. I’m on board for whatever stories he plans to tell in this new and exciting cinematic vocabulary.

Block or Report

tromber liked these reviews