Like most recent years 2020 was scheduled to be filled with loads of expensive blockbusters. It was to be another routine year of dull, workmanlike action films aimed at the Chinese market while totally ignoring that there was an audience at home that may be hoping for something to look forward to other than Marvel films. It was poised to be another year in which big budget films barely broke even or flopped hard. What was not predicted is that the biggest summer hits were going to be small screenings of 30- to 40-year-old movies. Instead of its second sequel, Ghostbusters was once again number one at the box office.
This was all due to a pandemic and, regardless of one's view on whether there was an overreaction, the fact is that almost every movie theater in the United States was shut down from March until early fall, completely wiping out the entire blockbuster season. Even though things supposedly got better in China, they weren't as lucrative either. With the only new Marvel film being New Mutants, Disney relied on television shows such as Wandavision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to keep the brand alive while the completed Black Widow movie sat on the shelf, experiencing delay after delay. No Time to Die, the latest James Bond film, still has not seen the light of day due to the insistence of MGM that it be played in theaters and not on a streaming service, while Wonder Woman 1984 was released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters after over a year of waiting..
There was one director, however, that demanded his movie be shown on the big screen and got his wish, and that was Christopher Nolan. Tenet was ready to be the next big movie from him, with over 200 million dollars spent on an original story that involved international espionage, arms dealing, time travel and an unseen enemy trying to wipe out the human race. It was big, ambitious and baffling to some, and if circumstances were different would have raked in money by the bushel. In fact, if Nolan had waited or just agreed to simultaneous streaming, it would have done the same business as many of his films. While it still hasn't done horribly, and it has, for the most part, reached its audience, Nolan's baffling arrogance at a time when many people were being fined and arrested for attending worship services, much less movies, was an unnecessary act of self-sabotage.
The Protagonist (John David Washington) is a CIA agent who attempts to commit suicide while being tortured for information. The pill that is supposed to do the job simply put him in a medically induced coma. Being officially deceased, he is recruited into another agency - Tenet - a shadowy international organization that is fighting a war for humanity's survival. The only thing is that there are few people with information about who the enemy is. The only thing the Protagonist knows is that there are a number of objects and weapons that have been "inverted" - that flow backwards through time instead of forwards - and they have something to do with the conflict at hand.
The face of the enemy in the current, forward version of time is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), an exiled Russian oligarch living in London. In order to get to him the Protagonist uses Sator's wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who is practically being held as Sator's prisoner due to him limiting access to their son. At the behest of an arms dealer associated with Tenet (Dimple Kapadia), the Protagonist teams up with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a former CIA contact, to pretend to steal a shipment of plutonium for Sator. However, it turns out that Sator is not after plutonium, but instead parts of a machine that will allow the enemy a victory in our time.
I really had no idea about much of this going into it. I knew it had to do with time travel, bullets flying backwards and a number of other strange things. My biggest fear was that it was going to be a retread of Nolan's previous movie Inception, or to try to connect to that movie in some way. Happily, it does not, following its own path and, due to the path it takes, leaving the movie unencumbered with any romantic subplot.
And, yes, John David Washington's character is just called the Protagonist. Everyone else has a name except him. In all honesty, most people in the movie have more character than him. Nolan was at least aware that he was creating a character that was a blank slate. He is important to the entire mission, as well as in the grander scheme of things, but who he is other than being the Protagonist is not. He is there for us to follow through the movie. There is no character progression, which is some of the criticism I have seen, but that is on purpose. Kat is the character we are supposed to identify with and care about, and Elizabeth Debicki, aside from looking striking on camera (for once a director did not try to hide a woman's height), is the one given the job of giving us a character we care about. While the Protagonist is the blunt force against the enemy, Kat is the one on the inside and the one that, in the end, holds the fate of the world in her hands.
One of the reasons that the movie is so expensive is that Christopher Nolan made it with as few computer effects as possible. This meant filming many sequences twice, going backwards and forwards. And, by backwards, that doesn't mean simply reversing the film. That means large numbers of extras and stunt people walking and driving backwards, and Kenneth Branagh, Robert Pattinson and John Ford Washington physically speaking backwards. Such sequences involve a full-scale invasion of an abandoned Russian city, a 747 crashing into an airport hanger, a building both exploding and imploding and a car chase that simultaneously is happening forward and backward at the same time. It is quite inventive and I can understand, after all that money and effort, and with a good portion of the movie filmed with IMAX cameras, why Nolan wanted to people to come see this on the big screen. In truth he probably should have held off until August of this year, as with the current downward trends in the COVID virus due to vaccinations there may be a severely truncated summer movie season, but one in which a lot of these films that have been sitting around for nearly two years finally get released.
It didn't help that there were some major problems with the movie as well. Given its timey-wimey plot line, the movie still plays out like a typical action movie. There are some great concepts here, and maybe even something deeper to expand on if Nolan ever decides to do a sequel, but this is largely spectacle above substance. Also, other than sending the Protagonist to Mumbai, Michael Caine doesn't serve much purpose in here, and it is quite obvious that he and Washington were never in the same room together. The other problem for most people was the sound mixing. In the theater, and on a lot of surround sound systems, the mixing is so bad that a lot of people have had to turn on subtitles to understand the dialogue. What is strange is, except for a few instances, I didn't have that problem, but I typically play everything through the television speakers since I have found in a lot of cases at least the mixing for home theaters emphasizes explosions and pushing the latest pop-rap songs from the soundtrack over making dialogue legible - quite a bit like the visuals that are on the screen. I can typically understand everything better in a simple stereo mix with a little equalizer adjusting, and it was the same with this film. Which doesn't mean there isn't a problem - if the mix sounds better on built-in speakers on flat-screen television than it does in the intended surround mix then someone made a mistake somewhere.
Despite its flaws, Tenet is still nowhere near as self-indulgent as some of Nolan's movies, and succeeds in entertaining and at least making things look amazing. I actually let out a few "whoas" even though I kind of knew a few scenes that would be showing up. Also, the movie is quite violent in places, but the worst is left to the imagination rather than making it cartoonish or bloodless. Having a cheese grater dragged across my face would be down toward the last of the things I would ever want to happen to me in a fight. I am glad that, even though Nolan should have waited, the movie still found enough of an audience that maybe at some point there will be a sequel with a lot more substance. If not, at least Tenet is still a lot of fun.
Time: 150 minutes
Starring: John Ford Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh
Director: Christopher Nolan