A word on public health. I viewed Tenet on August 26th. I was able to do so because I live in Canada and am in a province with less than 10 active COVID-19 cases, with no known community transmission. All precautions were taken including wearing of masks, hand washing and social distancing. The theatre I was in had two pairs of seats per row, with every other row vacant, and the filled seats staggered between rows. Seats were sanitized before and after screening. This review is not meant to encourage people to take risks, but since I am one of the first people in the world to actually be able to see a first run movie I thought it would be good to share my experience. If the film is available in your area please follow local public health guidelines if you chose to see it in the theatre.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a SYNCOPY production, written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh
August 27, 2020
By Jonathan Richards – thedigitaltheater.com
Tenet is unlike anything that I have seen before, and a film that could only come from Christopher Nolan. His films require multiple viewings because there are just so many little moments that don’t seem important at first but offer up a puzzle piece which falls into place later – so long as you remember. Thematically, Tenet is most like Inception (2010) than other Nolan films. However, Inception had a better connection to the motivations of the characters, at least in a way most viewers can relate. In Inception, you sensed Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) pain from planting the idea in his wife’s mind, and the dangerous solace he sought to ease it. And although Inception is a complex and mind-bending film, the concept is well explained early in the film, providing a foundation for the viewer. Cobb explains everything for our benefit to his new recruit, Ariadne (Ellen Paige). In Tenet, we are essentially learning alongside “The Protagonist” so the foundation for understanding is not as well laid out, at least not on the first pass; perhaps I just missed a key piece of the puzzle.
The concept behind Tenet is “inversion”. The word Tenet is a palindrome, which is a word spelled the same forward and backward. I wonder if “Madam I’m Adam” was also considered as a title. We learn that objects and people can be inverted, which means that they move backward through time. When you are inverted, intense heat is experienced as intense cold. An inverted bullet returns to the gun when the trigger is pulled. OK, that is fairly simple to follow. But then you are watching the movie and your mind starts working on things like…what happens when an inverted person gets into a car that is not inverted and drives forward? Are they moving backwards in time at the speed they are moving forward? Or are they not going anywhere? If you have someone from the past, and someone from the future, and one is inverted and the other is not, is time irrelevant? Can an inverted ball roll both up and down a hill? I guess it would depend upon where it started, maybe. Anyway, watching a movie like Tenet (and there are no others) will make you think about things like this, and that is what makes Nolan’s works all the better. A mind trip that keeps you thinking while being bombarded with elaborate action set pieces.
One thing I wasn’t sure about while watching was if there was any time travel involved, but I think I understand how that works now. It is not the time travel of pushing a button and ‘poof’ you are in 1952. It goes like this: if I go for a run in the park today and I see myself running down the path backwards, I’d say, ‘gee that is weird’. Then tomorrow I become inverted and stay inverted long enough that I would move backward in time to the point when I go for a run in the park backwards and I see myself running forward I’d say, ‘oh, I remember doing that yesterday’ (note: my forward moving self would still say ‘gee that is weird’). Now I just realized that if you invert and move backward in time, and then reinvert you will never get back to the point where you initially inverted because your experience of the flow of time would adjust from that point forward and you will always be that far back in time. In fact, you would be twice as far back as time keeps moving forward. See, if you spend a day moving backward, normal time moves ahead a day as well, so the difference between where you are and where you should be is two days. This is assuming time only moves forward, of course, and at the same rate as backwards. I’d have to re-watch to see if that is dealt with.
Let’s just say that there are lots of possibilities with this concept, and fans of Tenet will be debating them for years to come.
Robert Pattinson delivered a wonderful performance as Neil. We first meet him (I think) as someone who had a little too much Vodka and tonic, yet he seems to be ready for the task at hand. He also seems rather informed. John David Washington inherited a lot of skill from his father (Denzel) and delivered a great physical performance, but some of his one liners didn’t quite hit home. They just seemed out of character. I do think that the film could have been improved by giving him more of a personal motivation other than what appears to be a sense of duty. That is where DiCaprio’s Cobb in Inception benefited from having a fleshed-out backstory concerning the loss of his wife and exile from his children. That emotional connection gave weight to Inception. Washington’s character is just there. In fact, he isn’t even named. He refers to himself as “The Protagonist”. Perhaps some things are being held back for some point in the future (or past) as the possibility exists to explore the character further. Then again, he is a spy so perhaps that is why there is no back story. He is on a mission. That could be the thinking here, “The Protagonist” is just a man on a mission.
The premise of Tenet is also straight forward: save the world from annihilation by having the flow of time stop (I think). The person who wants to end the world has his own reasons for doing so. This character, Andrei Sator played by Kenneth Branagh is the most intense character in the film. It is clear he made his billions by not being a nice guy. The other main character is Sator’s wife Kat played by Elizabeth Debicki. She is trapped in a bad marriage, held hostage between her freedom and being with her son by information that Sator has. There are twists and turns along the way involving the heist of plutonium from a convoy that ultimately reveals Sator’s plan. Eventually there is a large battle with some crazy scenes of destruction in forward and reverse time. Think of a 20-story building being hit with missiles where some are normal, and others are inverted in time. Really, think about it.
I had a few issues with the presentation of the film. The image bent upwards on the bottom left of the screen, and about 5% of the screen on the far right was darkened and a bit blurred. Also, there was a light from the booth that would illuminate the screen from time to time – a door being opened maybe. It is a shame that more care isn’t given to the presentation. That’s what happens when there is no projectionist and it is all programmed in a NOC a couple thousand miles away. I also had issues with the dialogue. I found it very difficult to hear over the music in the surrounds. I doubt that the movie was mixed that way, so I am blaming the theatre for that one too. I would have loved to have been able to see it in 70mm as projectionists were contracted for those screenings, and I am sure they would have ensured a flawless presentation.
Tenet delivered almost everything I expected. I would have loved to have more depth to “The Protagonist” but I will assume that there is a reason for that. I am looking forward to seeing it again, so that I can hopefully answer some of those questions I still have. Oh, and now I remember it being said that gravity works the same when inverted. Therefore, an inverted ball would go downhill, and it would also roll uphill if it had gone downhill. Solved! Now, does intense pain become intense pleasure?