‘Tenet’: A Mind-Bending Return to Cinemas!

Tenet (2020)
Dir: Christopher Nolan

Films by Christopher Nolan are big releases under any circumstances but this year with the worldwide shutdown of cinemas and drastically delayed releases, this film has been widely hailed as some sort of talismanic saviour of cinema, embodying hopes of shocking the industry back to life.

After a while as the last film standing firm on the release schedule, it too got pushed back, released two days ago in the U.K. somehow only just over a month later than originally planned, a vanguard of the first new releases in nearly half a year. If there was any film that would be getting me back into a cinema while the pandemic is still a concern, this was it. The next concern for me was that in my largely rural area we have three small single-screen independent cinemas, all of which were looking like they would remain closed for the foreseeable future, so I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to see ‘Tenet’ without travelling quite some distance. However, this week I popped on Facebook and saw a day old post that the boutique cinema a few miles away was reopening, but by the time I saw the post, it was too late and had been updated to show that they had already sold out for their sole daily screening. So I messaged them and somehow I nabbed the last ticket for this re-opening screening thanks to the benefit that as I was going solo they could pop me in a single armchair tucked into an alcove on the back wall. 

I have a home cinema, it’s great, but it doesn’t replace the ambience of the theatrical experience, I was eager to get back to cinema-going and after so long it felt really good to go to the cinema again, albeit on my own, face mask at the ready, in a ‘sold out’ screening that was at less than half capacity. It was quite surreal but put a huge smile on my face to sink into the cinema’s plush armchair with a couple of extra cushions and a bag of peanut M&M’s to watch a new release on opening night. 

So, with all that build-up and heightened expectations, how was the film? 

Under more normal circumstances I’d have gone back into the foyer after the film and rebooked for the next convenient screening as I have done on a few occasions before. This is a film that demands to be seen again, even more so than ‘Inception’. It would be naive to say that I got even half of it first time, I’m sure I didn’t, but that’s what I expected.

After watching the first trailer when it was released so many months ago I purposely kept away from any more trailers or details of the film as much as practically possible, and the details have been largely kept under wraps anyway. Even if you knew as much as was possible to know beforehand, it’d still be difficult to follow. Essentially it’s an espionage thriller with some very enjoyable heist elements, with John David Washington’s protagonist trying to foil the plans of an antagonist who seems to be one step ahead. While he’s quick on the uptake, figuring things out rapidly he’s seemingly still always one step behind. I felt like we as an audience were always playing rapid catch-up another half step behind him and a good few steps behind Christopher Nolan until he wants to show his hand.

Right from the opening, the film immerses you in fast-moving action, often involving people in combat uniforms with full face masks, which makes it very hard to be certain who we’re following or what’s going on even before factoring in the complex narrative and concepts. Nolan has described this as an espionage film, and that certainly forms the backbone with definite hints of Bond as the protagonist is unexpectedly tasked with stopping what’s described as World War 3 but is given very little to work with so he’s constantly piecing things together as he goes, travelling wherever needed, extracting information and working out how things and people fit into this impending disaster and what he can do to stop it.

There are only a handful of key characters,  but there are scenes where there are many people running around on the screen and it’s almost chaotic though there are a few main figures to try to follow specifically through those scenes. I found it hard work to tune into who was who and what they were doing, though I initially thought much of that was just me as I was at the back of the cinema with the screen not being the largest so I thought I was just too far to pick out the details. On top of that the music and sound mix are very prominent, the subwoofer was working overtime, sometimes at the detriment of the dialogue, which is often brief but densely packed with implications. I worried that some of the issues I had with the film were down to me or the cinema I saw it in having some re-opening teething issues but after watching Chris Stuckmann’s review on YouTube where he said almost exactly the same things, and then I’ve heard other critics mention it too so I think it’s just a general observation of the film itself that’s worth knowing in advance, don’t beat yourself up for being confused. 

As hoped the film is visually spectacular. There are a few big set pieces and some mesmeric action that makes it a brilliant film to herald a return to cinemas, it’s dazzling on the big screen. There are effects integral to the plot that makes shots and scenes that are unlike anything you’ve seen before. One of the most publicized things has been that the film features a plane crash, but this is no small private jet it’s a full-sized Boeing 747. In keeping with his use of practical effects Nolan convinced the studio it’d be cheaper to shoot practically with an actual 747 and he really makes that huge purchase worth it, the scene is used to good effect and the audacity doesn’t go unnoticed even by the characters. 

Halfway through (I believe exactly so), things that have been set up in the first half are given a new perspective and the film starts to come together and show what it’s been doing all along. In the same way that ‘Dunkirk’ really steps up a gear when you grasp the different timescales and where they’re overlapping, when the potential of the premise is scaled up to its maximum everything changes and a few of the earlier confusing elements are clarified, albeit with extra complexity. Christopher Nolan yet again elevates his filmmaking by elevating his audience, treating them with respect and assuming they’re able to handle complexity, something I always appreciate about his films. I’d always rather be overwhelmed and confused by a film than able to work it all out early on and feel bored, or toyed with nonsensical twists that treat me like I’m stupid. There was one moment I thought I saw where things were going, a tiny detail that seemed like a vital recall to something from earlier, I let out a little ‘aha’, convinced it would be key to the finale. It wasn’t. 

I’m looking forward to seeing this again, maybe it won’t be at the cinema though, but I think I might like watching it at home on my home cinema where I can be closer to the screen and even adjust the sound if needed to make sure I’m not missing any details. There’s clearly a lot to spot in subsequent viewings and it’s a film that will bear much scrutinizing, as is still going on with ‘Inception’ and ‘Interstellar’, Nolan packs his films full of layers of complexity and much enjoyment can come from unpacking them and seeing how it changes the understanding of the film. I love that, and it’s made ‘Inception’ in particular a personal favourite I enjoy every time I watch it. I’m pretty sure it will be the same with this and I’m thrilled to have another Nolan film that I can endlessly rewatch and keep finding new things in. 

‘Tenet’ is being released worldwide in phases, out now in the U.K. and some places, coming to certain states next week dependant on the availability of cinemas in those areas. It requires a second viewing, which may be difficult, but I’m sure it will be worth it, the cinematic spectacle alone rewards seeing this on a big screen and the narrative and conceptual complexity will fuel fresh discussion is households that have been stuck together for months.

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