Call him arrogant, but you've got to hand it to Christopher Nolan: Despite a worldwide pandemic shutting down cinemas, he wasn't going to let his new blockbuster Tenet debut on some streaming service, or wait until the coast is clear in 2021 (or even 2022, at the rate things are going). It would screen in theaters only – on 35mm, 70mm, and/or IMAX, if possible.
Nolan only had to wait a month past Tenet's original premiere date to get his way. I, however, had to wait an additional two months before I could catch it nearby. As I write this, on October 25th, Los Angeles County's theaters remain shuttered (call it karma for all the years that big films opened in LA and NY weeks before the rest of the country), so last Friday my wife and I drove 50 miles north to Ventura County to see if big-screen Tenet was worth the ostensible risk of health and life.
In the end, ironically, Tenet doesn't benefit from a communal audience experience. This is not a film where you will laugh, scream, or cheer. It's a cerebral thriller that wraps an astoundingly complicated science fiction plot around a standard James Bond model. It may, in fact, be better to watch at home, where you can replay confusing scenes, pause to look up theories on the Internet, or even turn on closed captioning, as the audio mix muddles some crucial dialogue.
John David Washington stars as a nameless CIA agent who's recruited to assist something called "Tenet", a group of freedom fighters trying to stop a Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world. A megalomaniac, a woman and planet in peril, exotic locations, cool guys in suits, fast cars, and gadgets – there's your James Bond element. But this particular world-destroying technology involves a form of radiation, sent back from the future, that can make weapons and even people move backward in time. It can also make storylines impossible to follow.
Nolan has long played with time in his films. It's practically his brand. And at the core of Tenet is the primitive joy of running a film in reverse, as you watch splashes return to their puddles, explosions implode, and cars uncrash. Indeed, Nolan's exhausting plot may have sprung forth from a simple desire to show stuff going backwards because it looks neat.
A film this convoluted needs some warmth to keep audiences engaged. Unfortunately, while Washington sure looks like a movie star, he lacks the inner life that makes you care about his character. (I noticed this in BlacKkKlansman as well.) Robert Pattinson, the Felix Leiter to Washington's Bond, is drily funny, but kept at bay. Even Elizabeth Debicki, as Branagh's abused wife, who only seeks a happy life for her and her little boy, exudes a glacial quality.
In short, everything about Tenet is ice cold. And during a stressful time where the now-rare treat of going to the movies should bring joy and escape, who wants ice cold? Still, the film is clearly designed to be rewatched – it's like the cult time travel film Primer on a big budget – and if you can figure it all out, you might find that it's beautifully constructed. As for me, I was happy to finally be in a movie theater again, after a seven month intermission, but it's going to take something more fun than Tenet to keep me coming back.