At this point, you probably heard a thing or two about TENET (2020). You already know that it is the newest film by Christopher Nolan. Also, based on the trailer alone, you could guess that the story may or may not has something to do with time travel (bullets that revert in time after shooting, cars driving backward, and events that inspire quotes like “it hasn’t happened yet”). In the last couple of months, the discussion surrounding TENET moved forward over its content, trying to figuring out when we were going to watch it finally. We need no explanation about the reasons (we are in the middle of a pandemic!), albeit it is unavoidable not to speak about how the lockdown of movie theaters has impacted the perception of TENET and cinema in general. The release date of this and other movies postponed so many times raised the question of if we were able to watch it in the first place, much less in movie theaters. The British filmmaker has been one of the greatest defenders of theater experience, so the bets of getting TENET as a video on demand offering were almost impossible. Now movie theaters are back (sort of), and we get this long-awaited film, not at the moment we deserved it but when it is most needed (The Dark Knight reference intended).
Expectations for TENET increased considerably, given the circumstances. Nolan has no longer the responsibility of bringing quality to a summer already lost thanks to an original and ambitious blockbuster non-related with any franchise, which was already a big deal. His new mission is to save cinema (movie theaters and the theater experience) once and for all. Isn’t too much weight for carrying to a simple movie, maybe, even by Nolan standards? Pandemic or not involved, right now, it doesn’t matter how huge a film can be- a great one here, I warn you- it seems impossible for a single filmmaker to become a Messiah that would redeem sins that existed long before lockdown. The actual situation has only deepened problems like the survival of movie theaters in the streaming era or the erratic course of film criticism increasingly obsessed with providing more hot takes than real appreciation of films. Then comes the real question: are we ready for TENET? Who will care about the cinema’s future at the end of the day?
Excuse me the introduction: now it’s time to focus on TENET, fully aware that spoilers must be kept at all costs. The word “tenet” is a palindrome (read the same backward as forward) that in the movie refers to a code that identifies the members of a secret organization working in the prevention of a global catastrophe that could destroy the entire planet. A CIA agent with no name (John David Washington in a star-making role), known simply as The Protagonist, risks his life on a mission that demands the rescue of a spy and the stealing of an artifact at a packed Ukrainian opera house. Things won’t result according to the plan (or whatever he thinks was the plan), so The Protagonist would end in another mission with the strange organization previously mentioned. This group has access and information to a new technology capable of manipulating time as energy that reverts the entropy of objects. Lara (Clémence Poésy), a scientist, explains to The Protagonist how to catch with the gun a specially designed bullet from the future. She warns: Don’t try to understand it. Feel it. In the wrong hands, such technology would cause annihilation, which seems the purpose of a Russian oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh providing his best impression of a constrained Bond villain). So the mission of The Protagonist is to prevent that Sator obtains some device called Algorithm before its too late. As part of the job, he should contact Sator’s wife, a weak link to penetrate the life of this powerful man. Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is an art auctioneer suffering a miserable marriage to not losing her son. Assisted by a handler, Neil (a charismatic Robert Pattinson in his return to Hollywood fanfare), The Protagonist would have an adventure across the world jumping on buildings, managing a quick heist to steal a Goya, or getting in a car chase before the subject of time changes everything.
Those are the fundamental chess pieces that compound a challenging puzzle initially framed in the action and aesthetics of old-school spy films where a fight scene is equally important than the gorgeous landscapes or the right suit. It has been a splendid road to his career since MEMENTO (2000), Nolan works on a classic genre as a new playground to experiment again with time and storytelling (INCEPTION (2010)and INTERSTELLAR (2014) and even DUNKIRK (2017) would come to mind more than once), in the same revolutionary way he once made superhero movies like no other (THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy).
The screenwriter and director repeat himself with TENET in creating baffling twists that would raise endless questions and Reddit debates on the “hows” and “whys”, following the natural course of any entry from his filmography. The advice of the doctor should be followed by the audience too. It is not convenient to try to understand everything that happens in the movie the first time you watch it. Embrace the confusion instead. Considering how much expository dialogue presents (always engaging), TENET is carefully designed for you to understand it in repeated viewings (and even so), assuming the audience would care to come back. What matters is that the film will immerse you in a spectacular cinematic experience that will engage you because of the emotional resonance that comes from its characters. The action set-pieces are impeccable, and the use of practical effects captivating (including the highly advertised real crash of a plane). Everything feels organic and real, which makes you care better about who’s doing what in scenes crafted in tension and vertigo.
However, I fear that many won’t connect immediately with a Nolan film that feels more low-key and subtle than usual. None of that is a flaw, although put in question the purpose of saving cinemas across the country and overseas as the Tentpole-Chosen-One that many expected to cherish. TENET is extremely cerebral in the surface and discretely emotional deep inside with enough appeal to inspire opposite reactions. Despite what many would consider disappointing or lukewarm, this is a film enthralled by the layers and moods behind the tradition of spy films (from populist James Bond movies to the exquisite flicks by Jean-Pierre Melville), at the same time rigorous in the physics that sustain science fiction ideas (concepts like “entropy” or “temporal pincer movement” will give everyone something to talk about). When a movie makes you think in Twin Peaks (you will see Nolan’s version of a Red Room while people talk backward) as much in Jean Cocteau experiments (the practical effects to represent time inversion in objects and people), you certainly are in the care of a master creating something special. In many senses, TENET is a movie that remind us why we fall love with movies in the first place, and why we want theaters alive to watch them, if only you let yourself go. You would have time to come back for the answers.
Personally, what struck me most about TENET was the emotional journey brilliantly interwoven in the fate of its three main characters (Washington, Pattinson, and Debicki, all splendid). It serves as proof that Nolan cares about his characters as much as the convoluted plots that usually overshadows everything else. Maybe it is too early to clarify it explicitly, but it is the human heart of the movie revealed in proper time- when the usually disregarded as a cold filmmaker allows the story and the characters to break the ice on his feelings– that assure TENET a place in the pantheon of great Nolan’s films. Suffice to say that a dive into freedom or a goodbye look among strangers finding the beginning (and the end?) of a beautiful friendship carries more value than all the mumbo-jumbo that would capitalize subsequent discussions on TENET success or failure. The warm sentimentality has always been the best-kept secret of Nolan’s films, and what a wonderful discovery turns out every time. Early reviews weren’t particularly passionate (his lowest score in Metacritic since THE PRESTIGE (2006)), which makes you wonder what will happen when people finally come back to theaters. No one can predict what the audience will make of it, but if Nolan won’t save movie theaters he did something more than trying. It makes sense that one of the best films of this weird and chaotic year is a smart blockbuster intended to attract a worldwide audience while right now hasn’t happened yet for many. It is uncertain how long will be the wait until everyone manages to catch up. Whatever the outcome, TENET is for posterity (a phrase that would sounds differently, once you watch the film).