The experience of walking into a cinema after spending half a year unable to enter that space is almost indescribable. Six months; 183 days; 4,392 hours; 263,520 minutes. In a year that has seemed endless, full of turmoil and tragedy.
The mere concept of entering a movie theater at this point — with Florida’s COVID-19 numbers not exactly plummeting — might sound insane, and one rightly should be wary. But for someone who lives and breathes movies, stepping into the Museum of Discovery and Science’s IMAX auditorium in Fort Lauderdale was a much-needed reprieve from the world as we know it.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet — on 70mm, complete with a shifting aspect ratio that fills the museum’s massive screen and that sweet film grain that can’t be replicated by one of AMC or Regal’s dust-gathering digital projectors — is the perfect way to step back in time to a realm in which movie theaters were open. It is the ideal version of a summer blockbuster: inane, intense, and intoxicating from the first gunshot to the last beat drop.
Tenet is hard to explain, if only because it tries hard to explain itself for about 100 minutes of its 151-minute run time. Here’s the best approximation: the Protagonist (John David Washington) dives headfirst into an odd mission involving the inversion of time itself to prevent World War III and the complete annihilation of humanity.
If Memento was the equivalent of watching someone piece together a puzzle to reveal an intriguing picture, Tenet is what you get when someone throws a deck of cards on the floor and suggests playing 52 pickup: pointless, but fun when you’re in on the joke.
And being in on the joke takes some time with Tenet — which is all about time (sort of).
Nolan’s dialogue is chock-full of sci-fi gobbledygook (“inverse radiation”) and meaningless/meaningful statements about “cause and effect” and “ignorance being our greatest ammunition” in the face of time-bending. Characters exist as soulless figures designed to deliver expository dialogue and move us from set piece to set piece. Despite the useless nature of the script, Washington is as charming as ever in his leading role, as is Elizabeth Debicki (despite being saddled with the limited role of abused wife) and Robert Pattinson (arguably the film’s only character possessing any genuine personality).
Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington, and Robert Pattinson in Tenet.
Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures
At times, Nolan and his performers take themselves too seriously — though one might argue that Kenneth Branagh’s self-seriousness with certain roles and accents are more fun than any self-awareness. But it’s when he leans into the stupidity of it all that Tenet flourishes. It’s hard to tell whether the filmmaker himself is taking himself seriously, but it’s delightful to watch characters joke by saying things like, “Let’s start with the simple stuff: Have you heard of physics?” Or, “Don’t try to understand it.”
Any gripes fall away when the viewer is drawn in by the spectacle the director provides, despite some scenes that fall flat. Nolan’s opening scene at an orchestra performance can’t compare to the operatic heights of any given Brian De Palma opening (Femme Fatale especially), and several sequences feel as derivative of Michael Mann’s work as Nolan usually is. But there’s real joy to be found in watching the claustrophobic fight scenes and massive car chases, especially when they’re accompanied by Ludwig Göransson’s phenomenal score, which punctuates cars flipping and racing down a highway with riveting EDM beats.
Between Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematographic work, Jennifer Lame’s playful cutting style, and some wholly illogical but deeply engrossing special effects that make the backward flow of time seem all too real, Christopher Nolan has once again provided pure entertainment. Amid all the nonsensical writing, messy action, and blank characters, Tenet is a display of the pure, unfiltered blockbuster-filmmaking sensibilities that Nolan always delivers.
The choice of whether to risk your life for Tenet is entirely in your hands, but it must be said that there is indeed something comforting about experiencing a movie in the company of an audience. For what it’s worth, at MODS, limited to about 30 percent capacity, most guests kept their masks on.
Never would I have expected that the sound of two bros bragging about their painfully limited film knowledge, or the pointless applause at the start of the movie, would be so comforting.
Tenet. Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13. 150 minutes. Premieres in theaters Thursday, September 3.