The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unfathomable effect on every aspect of our lives, and for one out of every 1,000 Americans, ended them entirely. In the much less significant arena of cinema, the pandemic disrupted the entire business model of the studio and theatre system, perhaps permanently. One of the biggest consequences of this was the delay and redistribution of so-called “tentpole” releases, the blockbusters studios rely on for their biggest profits year to year. Aside from a lot of lost money, the situation also exposed the folly of the tentpole practice, as normally, studios get weeks and months to hype up a movie with advertising and merchandising, essentially wearing down general audiences to shell out the cash to watch these flicks. But with the uncertainty of the pandemic-affected release schedule, that marketing window was much more sporadic, if not eliminated entirely.
Because of that, when these tentpole features were finally released – be it in limited theatres, VOD, or streaming – audiences were not previously conditioned, and therefore got to judge these films on their own merits. And the verdict was decidedly not good. Antebellum stands at a disappointing 28% with critics and only 53% with audiences, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Disney’s live-action Mulan remake is relatively agreed to be one of the best of its ilk basically by default with critics, but audiences hated it, mostly because you not only had to have Disney+ to see it initially, but had to pay $30 extra for the privilege. That backlash is likely why Soul was released free for subscribers. And as for Wonder Woman 1984… we’ll get to that in a couple of days.
That leaves Tenet, the latest from visionary director Christopher Nolan. Of the four presumed tentpole movies (there may be others, but those are the four that I recall having all the hype early in 2020 and actually got released), it is the only one with a net rating of at least 70% on Rotten Tomatoes with both critics and audiences. And I’m happy to say, it earns its praise. Is this the greatest of Nolan’s work? Probably not, but it’s still a wondrous spectacle of visual effects with yet another genius bit of fuckery from its director.
Over the years, Christopher Nolan has become a virtuoso when it comes to screwing with timelines. With Memento, he revolutionized the concept of telling a story in reverse. Inception magnified the passage of time through the exponential levels of dreaming. Dunkirk melded three completely separate time frames into a single narrative. Now, with Tenet, Nolan explores an entirely new facet of time with the introduction of “inversion.”
A nameless Protagonist, played to the hilt by John David Washington, is part of a CIA operation at an opera house to thwart a terrorist plot to steal an artifact. In the ensuing gunfight, he’s saved by a masked operator, who seems to shoot an enemy target, but the bullet actually is pulled into the gun, as if firing in reverse. This leads to him being reassigned to a covert group called Tenet, where he’s tasked with investigating “inverted” weaponry, which is believed to be created in the future to travel back in time, putting the entire world at catastrophic risk.
Just the concept alone is enough to blow your mind, but the execution is truly a work of art, especially as the plot progresses and the scale becomes grander. Seeing a gun “unfire” itself is one thing. That’s a simple effect of filming in real time and playing it in reverse in the edit room. I used to do a similar effect whenever I did a “Baseball Tonight Rewind” when I worked at ESPN. But Christopher Nolan isn’t satisfied with simple and cute. He cares about epic, sweeping visuals, and this film delivers again and again, from hand-to-hand combat where the stuntmen are able to contort their bodies, to a car chase where one car drives forward while another drives backward, to an entire military operation where half are progressing and half are regressing, with explosions detonating and reverting based on the needs of the moment and the trajectory of the story.
It’s a tremendous undertaking for the effects department. Not only are you editing in reversed shots, you’re also asking your stunt crew and extras to act and move their bodies contrary to their own instincts. You have to create practical pyrotechnics and set pieces that can move in reverse and still look convincing while interacting with real-time actors moving forward. Composer Ludwig Goransson creates a score that could play just as compellingly forwards as backwards, to the point where I was waiting for him to sneak in a “Paul is dead” just for fun. Sometimes Nolan will help distinguish people by outfitting them in blue or red accessories – which is a nice touch considering Nolan is colorblind – but for the most part we’re left to stare in wonderment and attempt to figure things out for ourselves. It’s not confusing, because the plot sets up its beats appropriately, but also because Nolan takes care to keep the foreground active enough to not allow the audience to get distracted by anything going in the background. That in itself may be the most monumental achievement of this entire effort, that hundreds of extras (real and CG) can be running backwards with explosions collapsing into themselves in the background, but it doesn’t draw your attention away from the main action.
The semi-palindromic concept is based on the Sator Square, a block of letters that spell out words backwards and forwards in a 5×5 grid. Those words give the film its title, provides the name of the villain, and even references the opening attack on the Kyiv Opera House. That’s the kind of cleverness we’ve come to expect from Nolan’s stories, especially because it’s basically just a thematic easter egg rather than having any bearing on the story. Even when he’s doing large-scale effects-driven visuals, he can still just have a bit of fun and wordplay, which is admirable.
In addition to Washington’s lead, the supporting cast is pretty great as well. Robert Pattinson joins as a Tenet agent called Neil, aiding the Protagonist throughout, and hinting about the nature of their operation. It’s been an absolute joy watching Pattinson turn into a truly great actor since he shed the Twilight baggage, to the point that his mere presence is enough to get me to fork over the money to see anything he’s in. You also get a strong performance from Elizabeth Debicki playing Kat, the blackmailed wife of our primary antagonist. At times she acts like a glorified Bond girl, but notably, she’s never a real love interest, just a capable, independent entity with her own agenda that is perfectly suited to her character. Additionally, Michael Caine, Clemence Poesy, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Fiona Dourif (daughter of Brad) have good moments in small roles.
My one complaint is in the form of our villain, Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh. A Russian oligarch with access to the future weapon, Branagh is his usual hammy self, which can sometimes be endearing, but other times infuriating. This tends towards the latter, as his tacked-on Russian accent is so cartoonish that I was half expecting his nefarious plan to be to simply capture moose and squirrel (it also doesn’t help that Elizabeth Debicki, given her tall, slender frame, could have just been a blonde Natasha; thankfully she got some actual development). It renders any attempts to humanize Sator utterly laughable, and even when he’s given a somewhat sympathetic and tragic motivation for his actions, it just falls flat because I can’t get over the accent and the obvious evilness he exudes throughout.
Still, that’s the only damper in what is otherwise the only “tentpole” release that lived up to the hype. It’s fun, original, and has some spectacular visuals to complement its mindfuck of a story. Christopher Nolan has become a savant in this relatively new subgenre, telling new, fantastical stories by warping our very understanding of the concept of time. So it’s oddly appropriate to be the one successful gamble of the pandemic. Originally scheduled to be released in July, it got delayed twice to August, released internationally before it hit domestically in September, then only a limited theatrical release before FINALLY becoming available on VOD just before Christmas. It was well worth the wait, but from the film’s perspective, maybe we didn’t actually wait at all.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What did you think of the special effects in this movie? If you could be inverted, where would you travel back to? Let me know!