**½/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras B
starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
written and directed by Christopher Nolan
by Walter Chaw The misbegotten love child of Christopher Nolan's own Memento and Michael Lehmann's Hudson Hawk, Nolan's Tenet is chonky Looper, a bloated, high-concept actioner that, alas, lacks Rian Johnson's light touch and deftness with moments of genuine wonder and delight. It's not the Titanic, it's the iceberg; not a towering example of man's hubris, but the ironic, frozen engine of its spectacular undoing. Freud liked to talk about how the unconscious was like an iceberg: only the very tip is visible, while the bulk of its mass is subsumed beneath. Freed from metaphor and employed instead as a simile, the hidden depths of an iceberg are more ice, just wetter. Tenet is like the first two Back to the Future movies but longer, not as good, and, uh, wetter.
Like Nolan's other pictures, Tenet is stuffed full of so many words it's a wonder there's room left for its rashers of COOL ideas--so many ideas the only way to express them all is by talking and talking and then talking some more and then a great action sequence that maybe could have, should have, in another time would have, done all the talking instead. I don't think Nolan's films have ever been funny on purpose, yet I don't know that any of his films have ever been this funny on accident. Consider a scene where our hero, The Protagonist (John David Washington), is frisked by the henchman of Russian gunrunner Sergei (Kenneth Branagh, because of course it is) and says, "Whoa! Where I come from, you buy me dinner first!" This line is awful and, worse than awful, it has cobwebs on it. Did Nolan put it in here because he's establishing The Protagonist as exceptionally uncool and maybe a bit stupid? Or did he put it in here because he's trying to lighten the mood? I got it: it's there because The Protagonist is pretending not to be cool. After all, he's undercover in this scene, and when a cool guy pretends to be not cool, it's like Superman putting on glasses. Oh, Christopher Nolan movies, always so much to untangle.
The Protagonist is never referred to by name and is indeed credited as "The Protagonist" in the closing titles. There are unnamed protagonists in the history of film, of course. I think of Joan Fontaine in Rebecca first, though Nolan is thinking of...no, not Ryan Gosling in Drive--probably Edward Norton in Fight Club. (For the record, Fight Club is great despite the way it's been hijacked by the worst people on the planet. Like Nolan, for that matter, who attracts trolls like billy goats.) Fight Club is a puzzle with a solution; Tenet is a lot of stuff that happens. The Protagonist is unnamed in Tenet not for any purpose, I suspect, but rather because it's thinkbait: a puzzle in the way an onion is a puzzle. Fans of Nolan will note how Tenet plays like a greatest-hits compilation of Nolan-isms, not unlike North by Northwest for Hitchcock, or any novel by Stephen King after, shit, I don't know--doesn't he mention 'Salem's Lot in Pet Sematary? Tenet is Shrek for Snyder Cut fanboys, delivering addictive packets of dopamine with every reference trainspotted. A list would usually follow, but therein lies most of the fun. Sufficed to say the more Nolan films you've seen, the more you will have to divert yourself with while the movie takes a break from trying to explain its premise again to justify a series of heists for unobtanium MacGuffins.
Remo Williams-like, The Protagonist "dies" after a "bust" gone bad to be reborn as an agent in a super-secret whatchamadoo engaged in the thwarting of future people using future technology to, um, future us to death. Will futuring us to death in our present not negate future people? Well, it hasn't yet, idiot. Do try to pay attention. The Protagonist is aided by mysterious and handsome Neil (Robert Pattinson, an actor who attracts meme-makers like Nolan attracts trolls) and falls in love with urbane and tall art dealer Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Debicki, who I just saw in this role in The Burnt Orange Heresy, a better film mainly because Mick Jagger plays an art dealer in it. Wait, is Neil an art dealer or an arms dealer? What's going on with the Goya sketch that's a forgery? This reminds me of the fake Leonardo Da Vinci horse sculpture in Hudson Hawk, the real version of which has hidden in its belly one part of a thing that makes gold. The Protagonist and Neil drone on endlessly about tracking down "inverted" objects, i.e., objects from the future that are moving backwards through time. Nine of them have been hidden from the future in the past, and is it still a spoiler if it's Hudson Hawk? My favourite part of Tenet comes about ninety minutes in--which is about halfway through but the entire length of a normal movie--where a completely new and ancillary character volunteers reams of techno-babble exposition. My favourite because it's hilarious to me that a couple of years after "Rick & Morty" destroyed Inception, Nolan is still doing Inception-osition, which is like gaslighting except instead of making you think you're crazy, it makes you think you're not getting something that isn't there to get.
Anyway, halfway through this movie, The Protagonist goes through a portal into Backwardslandia, the same place I used to go to as a child when I wanted to be really fucking annoying. Everything I say is backwards, Mom! Look at me walking backwards in my pants that I put on backwards. To say the hundreds of millions spent in making everything go backwards is maybe not the best use of money I've seen is an understatement, but here's the rub: I liked Tenet. I liked it more than Inception, a film that is also a lot of blather interrupted by some pretty keen action sequences, mainly because Tenet is so aggressively cornball it's impossible to dislike it. It's not an edge-of-your-seat epic, but a seat-of-his-pants muddle where The Protagonist says, upon waking up in a tinfoil cocoon after burning to death from freezing solid, "Haha! At this point nothing surprises me!" Yeah, me, neither, Denzel Washington's son! And because there are no rules, you can either try to figure out the rules that aren't there so as to convince yourself this is some sort of masterpiece, or you can go with its throwback vibe to studio blockbusters that cheerfully did not give a shit. It's James Cameron's True Lies without the grotesque misogyny; Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins without the yellowface. And, look, I already like those movies. Tenet, in other words, is precisely the kind of garbage I dig. It's got the confidence of something that says stuff like, "It's a paradox! There is no answer!" and thinks it's being cleverly self-referential instead of a prat. Tenet feels like the exact moment I realized Chris Martin wasn't a poet, that when he sang something like, "Look at the sun/it's yellow," he was merely saying exactly what he was seeing. Joke's on you, Nolan, Tenet's obtuseness is what's so clever about it. This year has been terrible; we deserve Cotton-Headed Ninny-Muggins the Movie for several hours of expensive diversion. You know, just don't see it in a theatre unless you live in a functional country. Originally published: September 1, 2020.
THE 4K UHD DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner brings Tenet to 4K UHD disc in a 2160p presentation whose shifting aspect ratio is very much SOP for a Christopher Nolan joint. Tenet was shot on film mostly with IMAX cameras, though 5-perf 65mm Panavision was used for some of the connective tissue, and the former has been retrofitted for home viewing in 1.77:1 while the latter retains its native 2.20:1 dimensions. On my 55" display, the qualitative difference between the two sources is pretty narrow, especially with DP Hoyte Van Hoytema achieving something like lens parity across the formats. We've come a long way from The Dark Knight's conspicuous juggling of IMAX and 35mm, although I found that movie's use of HDR in 4k far more striking than Tenet's, which looks sort of...bland? Despite rich black levels (save for a handful of shots where the contrast mysteriously falters), Tenet never really puts the "dynamic" in High Dynamic Range. (There is no Dolby Vision option, for what it's worth--only HDR10.) While the breathtaking clarity of the transfer is the draw in this case, it's worth noting that the occasionally bold accents of colour, particularly the swaths of red and blue emergency lighting, lose their smothering density in UHD. Pyrotechnics shine brightly here but specular highlights lack sparkle; the 4K image ably captures that astonishing IMAX depth, yet even more could've been done to draw us into the picture's environments. Tenet's 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, on the other hand, is unequivocally dazzling. Nolan has a reputation for inaudible, nay, unintelligible dialogue, so it seemed almost sarcastic when Tenet immediately had me diving for the remote to turn the volume down about eight notches below reference level. But this is a gratifyingly loud mix, with no vocal distortions to speak of. I can't get mad that Nolan hasn't embraced object-based audio because neither have I, and this doesn't stop the filmmakers from doing a number of show-offy panning effects, or preclude the LFE channel from tunnelling to the centre of the Earth. Every set-piece is a stunner; for the first time in a long time, I caught myself bracing for the intensity of the explosions.
The two Blu-rays additionally included with the 4K platter contain the movie in 1080p on one disc and a clutch of HD bonus material on the other. Their tony-sounding titles to the contrary, the dozen vignettes that constitute the feature-length Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of Tenet (75 mins.), which can be watched individually or collectively, aren't that much more sophisticated or probing than the usual EPK filler, with the wonkishness kept to a disappointing minimum. They break down as follows:
I. The Principle of Belief (4 mins.)
Tenet's globetrotting plot, we discover, was partly a reaction to the focused scale of Dunkirk, partly a desire to do for the spy movie what Inception did for the heist movie, i.e., allow Nolan to exercise his James Bond jones. Apropos of nothing, CalTech's Nobel Laureate physicist Kip Thorne, returning as a technical consultant on the film after executive-producing Nolan's Interstellar, bears a striking resemblance to the late Sid Haig.
II. Mobilizing the Troupe (7 mins.)
"I'm actually kind of a nerd," offers John David Washington. This one's about casting; Nolan compares Branagh's character to Heath Ledger's Joker: a purely destructive presence whose motives can't be divined.
III. The Approach (5 mins.)
The first of a few testaments to in-camera trickery. The consensus appears to be that practical effects are convincing again because CGI has made everyone forget not only how they're done, but also how to spot them. First AD Nilo Otero, who's seen some shit, refers to the first week of shooting as "preschool" since it put a carefully selected group of geniuses back at square one in terms of figuring out how to do everything Ginger Rogers-style (that is to say, backwards and in heels).
IV. The Proving Window (5 mins.)
Nolan: "The camera literally sees time." Nolan and Hoytema's big innovation on this one was retrofitting IMAX cameras to run film backwards.
V. The Roadmap (5 mins.)
Herein we start getting down to the nitty-gritty, although tantalizing statements from the unfortunately-named visual effects supervisor Andrew Jackson about how Tenet's previz animatics were more like GPS aren't satisfactorily illuminated. Jackson notes that he never worked on a film where the crew needed to discuss the intricacies of the plot this much.
VI. Entropy in Action (11 mins.)
Otero resurfaces to say, "This is gonna be the toughest stunt-coordinator job George Cottle ever had." I like the footage labelled "ORGANIC BACKWARDS" that shows people learning to walk, run, and eventually fight in reverse. If you think that's difficult, try speaking backwards with a Russian accent--something actress Elizabeth Debicki fantasizes actors being asked to do at auditions in the future. (We see Branagh writing out his flipped dialogue phonetically on a whiteboard.) Should you ever need to shut down a highway for a car chase, incidentally, consider the Estonian city of Tallinn.
VII. Traversing the Globe (12 mins.)
For Tenet, possibly the last of a dying breed of blockbuster to shoot all over the world, Nolan pursued a "Brutalist, Eastern bloc" vibe that probably could've been accomplished for considerably less money by renting out the campus of any Canadian university. We learn that this was the first time Mumbai gave a production permission to do aerial photography--though not why it was prohibited in the first place.
VIII. How Big a Plane? (5 mins.)
Why did Tenet cost $205M to make? Exhibit A: that's a real 747 crashing into a real airport, for real. Nolan originally scouted the presumably cheaper 737, but his dick got hung up on the puniness of it.
X. Constructing the Twilight World (5 mins.)
More "in-camera" dogma. The best part is when we see art director David Packard hand-painting drawers on the walls of Barbara's office, transforming it cheaply into an endless dispensary. Forced perspective likewise comes into play in a cave entrance that looks like a long tunnel thanks to the magic of lowered ceilings. Production designer Nathan Crowley's nickname is Nate-Dog, by the way. What's Nolan's, I wonder.
IX. The Dress Code (4 mins.)
A bit about Jeffrey Kurland's costumes. Polo shirts are termed "J.D.'s iconic look." M'kay. Sator's--Kenneth Branagh's--wardrobe is said to have been scaled back from initial concepts, which is sort of Nolan's whole thing, innit? Honestly, I'm shocked his Batman wore a batsuit.
XI. The Final Battle (4 mins.)
A feat of choreography, to be sure, but can we talk about how I never would've known that Fiona Dourif was in Tenet had she not appeared as one of the talking heads in this featurette?
XII. Cohesion (6 mins.)
Ryan Coogler's composer Ludwig Göransson and Ari Aster's editor Jennifer Lame are first-time Nolan collaborators. Lame basically says that cutting Tenet was a headache, but she manages to make that sound like a gift. While I geeked out a little over seeing 65mm rushes, I would've welcomed more edification as to exactly how associate editor and credited dailies wrangler John Lee managed to process and project celluloid--specialty celluloid, at that--in far-flung corners of the globe.
Rounding out the platter and the available special features is a 10-minute block of trailers (four in total) with progressively farther-off release dates ominously charting the fruitless attempt to open Tenet during the pandemic. It's funny if you're feeling dark. The combo pack comes with a voucher for a digital copy of the film, too.
150 minutes; PG-13; UHD: 1.77:1/2.20:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), HDR10, BD: 1.77:1/2.20:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French Canadian DD 5.1, Latin Spanish DD 5.1, Castilian Spanish DD 5.1, Italian DD 5.1, German 5.1 DTS-HD MA, Czech DD 5.1, Polish DD 5.1, Hindi DD 5.1, Thai DD 5.1, Japanese DD 5.1, BD: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, Portuguese DD 5.1; UHD: English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian SDH, German SDH, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Thai, Korean, Simplified Mandarian, Traditional Mandarin subtitles, BD: English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese subtitles; BD-100 + BD-50 + BD-25; Region-free; Warner