Put on your brain-bending pants, cause it’s time for TENET! Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited time traveling blockbuster—touted as the saviour of the cinema in the time of COVID—has now hit Blu-ray and 4K disc.
It’s a relief that TENET can now be viewed safely at home, but I actually braved the cinema back in August to see it on the big screen. Why? Because I live in a country where the virus has been under control, but even then, with everything that’s gone on in 2020, the act of going to the movies felt anachronistic. It was like inverting time and traveling back to when it was okay to inhale popcorn aromas and other people’s air without fear of suffering a horrible death. Was TENET worth the health risk?
Well, if I lived in a place where COVID was a bigger threat, no. But in a COVID-free environment, TENET is good, and I’m not just saying that because as a fan of the cinema experience, it felt like I was starving in the desert and someone threw me a cracker. It’s actually genuinely good.
Like the majority of Nolan’s filmography, it’s grand in both scale of production and ideas. He’s always played with notions of temporality in film, but not quite this much since 2000’s Memento. That film operated on the novel concept of telling its story in reverse, and the only clear way to one-up that is to run a story both backwards and forwards at the same time, right? Enter TENET.
John David Washington plays a secret agent known only as “The Protagonist”. He’s sent on a mission to find the source of mysterious weaponry that’s seemingly travelling backwards in time from a war destined to happen in the future. With the help of fellow agent Neil (Robert Pattinson), he ends up on the trail of a notorious arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Sator is up to all sorts of temporal-no-good, and the race to save both the future and the past is on.
As usual, Nolan dazzles with a Bond-esque world tour of locations, an array of ambitious practical effects, and prodigiously filmed chase scenes. The incredible visuals are underscored by a head-splitting soundtrack that’s so loud it might actually reverse time on its own. The action is dizzying, like being hit with a flashbang, but then again, maybe I’ve just spent too much time in lockdown and I’m no longer able to handle the stimulus? Either way, it’s impressive stuff.
Where TENET shines most is in its concepts. Ideas are packed so tight it feels like the movie is going to explode and collapse under the sheer weight of time travel theory and philosophy. A vast majority of Nolan’s screenplay appears to have been written on grid and graph paper, with more interest in mathematical technicality of scenes rather than characters. But, if you’re a veteran of the man’s movies, you’ll already know to expect this going in. His weak point has always been the clinical nature of his human drama.
Nolan’s characters are always so busy shooting thick expository dialogue and plot all over each other that there’s no chance to develop real chemistry. The dramatically crucial relationships between Branagh and Debicki, and Debicki and Washington, both fail to crackle. There may be a tiny spark of real chemistry between Washington and Pattinson, but they’re always so pressed into action and plot that whatever was there gets buried, and when it should be paying off toward the end, the audience feels nothing.
Washington’s character has the charisma of a two-by-four, but that’s most likely the direction he was given rather than the actor’s fault. Pattinson doesn’t fare much better. In some instances, the movie actively works against you connecting with its characters. During one of the lengthy, pivotal action scenes, our heroes are lost amongst a platoon of soldiers wearing masks. It makes you feel like you’re watching someone play Call of Duty.
Yes, TENET suffers from many of the same problems as Nolan’s other work. The issues are perhaps amplified here by the absence of Hans (currently tied up with Dune) Zimmer’s emotionally charged bombast that gave their previous collaborations a boost in the heart department. Ludwig Göransson is a decent replacement for Zimmer, and fills the air with some intriguing reversed music and sounds, but still doesn’t quite hit the same heights as Zimmer.
Sure, this is a “thinking person’s” action film, but, don’t think about it for too long. TENET invites second, or third viewings to understand all of its time traveling nuance. Maybe I’ll figure it out eventually but after a single viewing? I’m convinced the story doesn’t make a lick of sense. For example, when a hole is punched in a wall by a bullet from the future, at what point in the past does that hole first appear? Cause and effect doesn’t work that way, Christopher! I don’t care if you had renowned theoretical physicist Kip Thorne in the credits! It doesn’t make sense!
But despite all the whining and complaining I’ve done here, I had huge amounts of fun with TENET. I was engaged for the entire two and a half hours. The film throws so much at you, there’s no chance to get bored, and it gives us things we’ve never quite seen in a movie before.
With the state of cinema at the hands of coronavirus, Tenet feels bittersweet, like some kind of finale for blockbuster cinema. Or maybe a funeral dirge. In 2013, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg prophesied the death of the blockbuster, albeit under different circumstances. COVID seems to have made that prediction come true, at least for the foreseeable future, especially with the news that Warner Bros is dumping it’s entire 2021 slate on HBO Max, much to Nolan’s chagrin. This is a movie that deserved to be seen in glorious 70mm, on the biggest screen possible, but at least no one will die watching it at home. TENET is now available to own on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and Digital.