With everything going on, and with little else to do but wait, what we could use right now is a good distraction. Unfortunately, the pick of the litter from Hollywood is somewhat limited as studios remain hesitant to release films without complete assurance that they’ll succeed. However, Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan had enough trust in the director’s latest mind-bending sci-fi extravaganza TENET to give us something to quench our appetite.
TENET is a film that gleams with excess, a blockbuster practically infused with entertainment. While it offers up a plot so complex it’s almost silly, Nolan’s latest is absolutely what we need right now. Not only is it pure indulgence, but it will also leave you pondering for days attempting to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of a story.
As soon as you find your assigned seat, buckle up and brace yourselves because this film fires on all cylinders from the opening minutes and seldom relaxes itself in its 2 ½ hour runtime. The beginning is almost startling, opening in a Kyiv opera house with CIA operatives outside preparing to burst in and quell a terrorist threat.
It is here we meet our hero, played by John David Washington, identified only as The Protagonist, and from there we follow him through a multi-layered, weaving plot with apocalyptic stakes at the finish line. It’s all very reminiscent of a classic James Bond story, complete with a sinister Russian villain at the other end played by a surprisingly frightful Kenneth Branagh.
Nolan’s plot is a bit too complicated to succinctly articulate in this short essay, but here goes: The Protagonist is sent on a mission to prevent evil Kenneth Branagh from using technology sent from the future to destroy the past, and thus, end the world. In a bit of Act I exposition, as The Protagonist himself struggles to understand what’s happening, he’s given the line: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” But this is a note that’s clearly meant more for the audience than the hero himself.
In Nolan’s screenplay there’s a designed balance of complexity and grandeur, building a story that is interesting enough to create real suspense, but large enough to wash over the audience for pure entertainment value. And while almost every piece of dialogue is crucial to the plot, as characters speak almost exclusively in exposition-filled monologues, his pace and style is consistent enough to construct a specific logic for the world the characters inhabit.
However, it’s the performances from the leads that really ground TENET and make it believable. John David Washington is a hero who is reticent, disciplined, and vicious but also charismatic enough to provide a quip now and again (moments when you can clearly see his father Denzel pop out). An even greater gift is his synchronicity with Robert Pattinson’s character Neil, a fellow agent he meets along the way, who is suave, cocky, and oh so very British. If I may return to the James Bond simile, it’s almost like seeing Sean Connery and Roger Moore finally team-up for the classic spy thriller we never knew could exist.
All in all, what I think is most refreshing about TENET is that it’s daring. Sure, the plot is overly complex, and as I said a bit silly, but I guarantee you’ve never seen a film of this size attempt this kind of feat with an expectation that general audiences will accept and enjoy it. I could liken the film to smaller indie projects like Shane Carruth’s PRIMER, or Rian Johnson’s LOOPER, but the fact that Christopher Nolan created a $200 million epic like this and Warner Bros had the faith to not only produce it, but release it during a pandemic, is a clear sign that there’s creative freedom still left in Hollywood.
This weekend, the Michigan and State Theatre are excited to welcome you back for a good old fashioned time at the movies, and we hope to see you soon.