Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' is magical mind-fuckery on an unprecedented level

Whether anyone should feel comfortable going back into a theater to see it with other people is a whole other debate.

click to enlarge The Protagonist (John David Washington, left) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) fight to save the planet in real time, and inverted time, in "Tenet" - Melinda Sue Gordon
Melinda Sue Gordon
The Protagonist (John David Washington, left) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) fight to save the planet in real time, and inverted time, in "Tenet"

“Tenet” is by far Christopher Nolan’s least accessible feature film, and yet also his most thrilling from the standpoint of moviemaking magic.

It works best when Nolan aggressively rewrites the rules of how action films are supposed to operate or when he slyly flips the script on how time travel has historically been conceptualized in feature films.

The buzz word in “Tenet” is inversion, as in “a reversal of position,” and while I won’t spoil anything related to Nolan’s outside-the-box take on some thought-provoking science, it’s fair to say that for the first time in memory, I was transfixed watching Nolan’s massively-scaled set pieces operate on twin tracks, real time and inverted time.

The other buzz you’re likely to hear about is the film’s score by Ludwig Göransson, which reverberates and crescendos with awesome fury and urgency. It’s frankly spectacular and bruising all at once.

3 out of 5 stars.
Run Time: 150 minutes
Opens September 3

Here’s the deal, though. If you had trouble following “Memento,” “Inception” or “Interstellar,” you might want to wait for home media so you can pause, rewind and put on subtitles to absorb the flurry of information that gets dumped in the first 45 minutes alone.

Simply put, “Tenet” is mind-fuckery on an unprecedented level.

And there’s no easing in. None.

“Tenet” moves rapidly from the Ukraine to India to London without giving viewers much time to catch their breath. There are suicide capsules, code names, long talks about art forgeries, double-and-triple agents, and averting a World War III scenario that’s coming from the future.

One fellow critic complained after the screening that it was James Bond-lite and basically rubbish.

“Tenet” is definitely not rubbish, but at two-and-a-half-hours, it’s definitely overlong and requires effort early on to keep from being overwhelmed.

For me, the casting of John David Washington as The Protagonist just didn’t work nearly as well as it should have. I’m not sure if that’s more due to Washington’s low-key (at times, nonexistent) charisma, or the fact that pairing Washington with Robert Pattinson allowed Pattinson’s natural charm to steal virtually every scene they share.

What I can report is that the final hour or so of “Tenet” is pure geek cinema at its finest.

Nolan displays a brilliant ability to craft action sequences that actually thrill and suspense sequences that generate genuine anxiety, and there are three or four such extended bursts throughout “Tenet” that prove why he is one of the best, most inventive directors working today.

As inscrutable as “Tenet” is at times, there’s no denying that it also feels like Nolan is having the most fun of his career twisting expectations and upending any preconceived notions we as viewers might have about what to expect.

click to enlarge Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) probably should rethink her marriage to Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) in "Tenet" - Melinda Sue Gordon
Melinda Sue Gordon
Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) probably should rethink her marriage to Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) in "Tenet"

Now let’s talk about watching “Tenet” in a theater, in the middle of a global pandemic, at a time when COVID-19 is still infecting and killing humans at a rapid clip.

Clearly, there was never any discussion about pulling “Tenet” completely off the 2020 release schedule. The film changed release dates multiple times, but it never went away, and Nolan was vocal in interviews about wanting his movie to be experienced on the largest screen possible.

I completely agree with him on that point.

There were five other people in the 300-plus-seat IMAX theater at AMC Veterans 24 when I watched “Tenet,” and while I was thankful that no one coughed, or sat within whisper distance, I was still completely unnerved.

Despite public assurances from AMC Theaters on the litany of enhanced cleaning protocols that have been enacted and will be adhered to for the foreseeable future, I still took my own high-powered disinfectant wipes. I spent 10 minutes meticulously wiping down the cloth seat, the arm rests, the head rest, anywhere I might touch.

And even after doing that, for two-and-a-half hours, I barely moved in my seat. I kept my elbows touching my ribs on either side. I kept my face mask on throughout the entire film, as mandated by the theater chain. And I immediately stripped, showered and washed my clothes as soon as I got home.

Would I have still gone to see “Tenet” in the theater if I knew the auditorium would be at least at half capacity? I don’t think so.

Would I have been comfortable standing in line for popcorn, or going to pee before the show began? Probably not.

Is “Tenet” worth the risk of going into public, into an enclosed space, with other people, possibly asymptomatic, just to watch a movie?

I can’t be the one to tell you that, nor should that responsibility fall on anyone but you and your family.

But what I can tell you is that after the credits rolled, after I walked quickly outside to get back to fresh air, after I was safely in my car and driving home, I felt something that I hadn’t felt in months, probably not since the last movie I saw in a theater, which was “The Invisible Man” on February 25.

As my mind grappled with questions about “Tenet,” and I began to write this review in my head, I realized that I wasn’t worried, or anxious, or trying to plan six-steps-in-advance how to maneuver and navigate something that used to be simple, like going to Walgreen’s.

For a moment, I felt almost normal.

And it felt good.  

John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.

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