Tenet ★★½


(Warning: spoilers ahead!)

Yes indeed, my theme for March is a thing, not a person! This is just an excuse for me to catch up with all the new movies I haven't seen yet, but given that the Academy Award nominations are going to be announced on March 15, I figure I better get cracking on seeing as many of the contenders as I can muster. With this plan in mind, there was no way that I couldn't kick this series off with the movie I originally wanted to see most in 2020 before the pandemic hit, Tenet. For many months I have mused on whether I should watch the latest Christopher Nolan feature on my TV when I am so accustomed to the beauty of the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13's gargantuan IMAX screen, but I made my decision based on the idea that if I was ever confused by the plot or missed a line, I'd be able to rewind and turn on the closed captions. (Which I did, of course, many times.)

Ironically, I learned after finishing the film that it will finally be opening in NYC this Friday, a year after our theaters' doors were closed throughout the city. (Starting March 12, Tenet will even be playing in IMAX at the aforementioned hugest screen in the city, on which I have seen every Nolan film since The Dark Knight.) Here's the thing: that may be a reasonable option for cinephiles who a) don't live with senior citizens or other people especially susceptible to COVID and/or b) either live close to a theater or are able/willing to take transportation to the location, but since those requirements don't apply to me - my parents are in their seventies and eighties, so I don't want to risk their well-being or mine, and moreover I neither live within walking distance of a movie house nor do I currently feel comfortable taking a train to one - I have to remain fine with avoiding the theatrical experience for the foreseeable future. Fortunately for my parents, they will be receiving their second Moderna vaccines in a couple of weeks, but I still worry for myself, even though I'm 28 and in decent health.

Anywho, let's actually discuss Tenet. What a weird movie, right?

If BlacKkKlansman can be viewed as a companion piece to Malcolm X as Spike Lee period pieces about Black American men combating racism, starring two generations of the Washington family, then Tenet is essentially Crimson Tide, except here the prevention of a nuclear holocaust is set above sea level and involves manipulated chronologies, reverse-flying bullets and a James Bond villain with a sketchy Russian accent. What I'm saying is Nolan's electron-a-palooza could have been improved with Gene Hackman, who already fits into this scenario by being a fan of cool new technology. Let's work backwards and make his un-retirement happen!

John David Washington's unidentified "Protagonist" is probably the best reason to watch, handling the nonsensical action scenes well and rattling off silly dialogue - ex. "Helping an arms dealer steal weapons-grade plutonium is unacceptable, Priya."; "His ignorance is our only protection." - with straight-faced dignity. And those action sequences really are impressively designed, even if I couldn't always attach contextual meaning to those special effects. (Extra kudos to editor Jennifer Lame, whose previous assignment was Marriage Story, an intriguing shift in genre.) Robert Pattinson also manages well, proving to be a fine wingman, although I do wonder what led Neil to the natty scarf and blonde dye job. I have fewer pleasant feelings for Kenneth Branagh as the aforementioned baddie, whose threats are beyond embarrassing (he actually says "if I can't have you, no one can!" at one point) and has basically the same incentive for wanting to annihilate humankind that Robert Carlyle had in The World Is Not Enough, if you exchange a bullet dangerously close to the brain for Branagh's "madman" character, Andrei Sator, having inoperable pancreatic cancer.

My biggest issue with Tenet, as I'm sure many other critics have already discussed (I have steered clear of most write-ups for the past half-year), is that you need an advanced scientific degree to understand the story's supposed logic. By not firmly establishing the rules (at least as far as I could tell), Nolan can get away with anything he wants. I'm not asking to have my hand held, but too many of the film's events feel like completely random moments slapped together and connected by explosions, though apparently they all add up since the ending wraps up so neatly. Maybe it's my fault for choosing not to take a physics class in high school, but since I started to lose the threads of Tenet's plot about an hour into the 150-minute length, surely a great deal of the blame lies with Christopher Nolan. How interesting, as it now occurs to me, that he followed his most pared-down narrative, Dunkirk, with his most complex.

The rest of my notes are a jumble:
- Correct me if I'm wrong, but "Tenet" is just a code word that bears no more significance than helping the Protagonist early on, gaining him access to information about all this timey-wimey gibberish from Dr. Barbara (Clémence Poésy; what a shame she doesn't share any scenes with Robert Pattinson for a Goblet of Fire reunion). "Rosebud" symbolism, it ain't.
- I'm not sure if the problems that Tenet has regarding sound are related to mixing or editing; I think what it boils down to is that a number of the lead actors occasionally swallow their words, due either to accent/pronunciation tendencies or verbal velocity.
- Movement through time is controlled by... a large turnstile. Huh. That was a choice.
- MASKS. SO MANY MASKS. True 2020 cinema.
- Elizabeth Debicki's character has only two purposes: 1) worried mother and 2) Bond girl in a bikini, seducing the criminal mastermind on a yacht. Why am I not shocked?
- On the plus side, welcome surprises Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Martin Donovan!
- The inverted Casablanca ending got a genuine chuckle out of me
- Is this a hot take? I like the Travis Scott song in the end credits, which sounds better through headphones and is probably even better when blaring in theater speakers.
- All-caps assertion near the bottom of the scroll: "THIS FILM WAS SHOT AND FINISHED ON FILM." Okay, Chris.

Whew. Onward and upward. My odyssey through the films of 2020 and 2021 continues.

2020 in Film and TV: Ranked (So Far)

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