Ed Fernandez tries to wrap his head around Christopher Nolan's latest Rubik's cube of a film.
Tenet is a movie laden with expectations. Christopher Nolan's reputation as a cinematic craftsman precedes him. Responsible for many of the must-see cinematic experiences of the last two decades, Nolan has repeatedly delighted, shocked, and immersed audiences with his big-budget, high-concept offerings. This reputation has built him a fanbase a size typically reserved for entire franchises and set the bar higher and higher for each new entry in his canon. Nolan is known for making films that demand attentive work on behalf of the audience, but there is always the promise that this interpretive work will be rewarded. His films often double as intricate puzzles, inviting you to figure out all of their moving parts in a cathartic post-viewing quest for deeper understanding.
Couple this directorial clout with Tenet being the first trip to the cinema we're getting for half a year and there is undoubtedly a huge amount of hype surrounding its release. It's almost unfair to view Tenet in this light, to crush it under this contextual baggage, but I imagine these kinds of judgements will be inevitable in the minds of audiences.
The natural question would be: does Tenet succeed? In many ways the answer is yes. Tenet is a suave, globe-trotting spy thriller with a lead super spy to match. John David Washington is equal parts charismatic charmer and action hero as the protagonist, called… "The Protagonist". I'm serious, that's what he's called, and that's about the only straightforward piece of information in this movie. I’m willing to say this is probably the most Christopher Nolan of any movie he’s made yet. It's brimming with head-scratching concepts, “how the hell did they do that?” action sequences, and narrative puzzles so intricate that there will no doubt be hours of YouTube watching and Reddit scrolling devoted to unpacking them. This is, in my eyes, the most puzzling puzzle Nolan has ever created. I found it so confusing that I didn't understand a good portion of the film while I was watching it.
There are times when the why, what, and even when of Tenet was so indecipherable that I'm sad to say it threatened to push me out of the experience. When the film’s central “time-inversion” concept was being explained I felt like I may have accidentally walked into a lecture on quantum physics. It felt like highly complex ideas and plot points were skipped over painstakingly quickly, to the point that I was unable to focus on the next important development because I was trying to understand what had already happened and what it actually meant. Doubtless Nolan's avid fan base will revel in this new Rubik’s cube of a movie, but solving it can only be done post-viewing, when you can pause the movie, go back, and make notes (if you're so inclined). What matters here is the experience of sitting in the cinema and watching Tenet for the first time. I was trying, and failing, to play catch-up for the entire runtime. On the one hand, Nolan's ambition may have got the better of him — it's possible he created something so complex that it demands too much of the audience and as a consequence fails to connect. On the other hand, I could've been missing the point.
Early on a character tells The Protagonist, but really the audience: "Don't try to understand it, just feel it." It seems this is how Tenet is intended to be viewed, at least the first time around. Trying to understand Tenet beyond each moment that you are watching it is a fool’s errand. How much you're willing to accept this idea, that you have to just go with whatever's happening, will determine how much you're able to digest and enjoy the film. Maybe the point is to be as bewildered as The Protagonist is. Maybe if I had just sat back and let Tenet sweep me away in a wave of confusion, instead of fighting it, I would have left the cinema more satisfied. There are essentially two ways to view Tenet. You can try and solve it as you watch it — leading to frustration, confusion, and dissonance — or you can just go with it. You can accept that it's not meant to be understandable on the first watch and just take each mind-boggling moment of the film one step at a time.
This leaves me incredibly torn. Can I say Tenet was a good movie even if I felt entirely scrambled for much of the runtime? If there were a great deal of narrative building blocks going several kilometres over my head, can I honestly say it was an enjoyable experience? It'll be interesting to see if the answer to these questions is no for a mainstream audience, if people will give up on this movie or if they will embrace the confusion.
However, to me the answer is a resounding yes. I still had a great time with my experience of Tenet, even if I didn't understand it. It just might be that Nolan is onto something with the idea of feeling movies, of getting lost in them and resigning yourself to confusion. Watching Tenet is like being on a boat ride. How did you get on the boat? Why did you get on the boat? Who are you with and why are they there? Where in the world are you? Where are you going? You don't fully know. But you don't have to know to be impressed by the view. And what a view there is. Nolan doesn't waste any of the potential mileage his time-inversion device offers, and I don't want to spoil anything, but be prepared for him to serve up all manner of visually dazzling, cerebral, and IMAX-ready action sequences. Nolan shuttles you from moment to moment and from height to height with such cadence that to stop and meditate too much on the logic of it whilst viewing it is to deny yourself the ride he has in store for you.You won't fully grasp Tenet while it's going, but I don't think you have to. I don’t think it's too confusing to be good. I think it can be both of those things. That's not to say Tenet is a mess, because there are clearly hours of work and thought that has gone into it. I have no doubt every inch of this film has been thought through over and over again and that beneath this experience there is a Jenga tower of narrative pieces arranged so delicately that no piece could be removed. The point isn't to solve that puzzle while you watch it, it's to be caught up in it like a tiny fish in a tidal wave. Nolan has obviously put something deeply thoughtful together here, something you wouldn't see from any other filmmaker working in the blockbuster arena. This is not just another movie, and as confusing as the experience is, it is utterly unique. To me, it absolutely succeeds both as a cinematic experience and as an entry in Nolan's filmography. The more Tenet sits with me, the more I'm on board with it, the more I'm excited to see it again, and the more I want to lose myself in confusion once more.
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