Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
*Warning major spoilers for pretty much all of Tenet below so if you’d rather see it unsullied then you probably shouldn’t read it*
So. Yeah. Even tho I’m the kinda guy who puts on a mask even if I’m just stepping outside to empty the bins I decided to take the stupid / brave / foolish step of actually paying money to go and see Tenet in my local cinema. What gives? (Especially when I’ve literally sent that cinema scene from Outbreak to my friends that should be enough to deter anyone from even thinking of looking at a cinema screen for the rest of the year if not forever).
Well – here’s the thing. That very first Tenet trailer? The really cool one that basically gives nothing away and climaxes on the sight of a car flipping over in reverse? That’s basically the coolest 2 minutes 10 seconds I’ve seen in what feels like centuries and I was all the way sold the very first time I saw it and doing the whole SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY thing – and then I rewatched it about (almost literally) a hundred times more and would show it to people when I went around their houses…. “Oh you haven’t seen the Tenet trailer? Well cool – let me show it to you.” I mean everything about it is perfect all the way down to the tiny little drum roll before that first shot kicks in. And yeah shit it all looks incredibly Nolan by the numbers from the shots of confident looking men holding briefcases and striding around in incredibly tailored suits, industrial looking spaces beautiful lit, Micheal Caine, that swimming underwater dreamlike feeling with men defying gravity and walking across buildings the wrong way up and someone solemnly making a cool speech about how “It’s called movie title” (or whatever).
To be clear – I’m not actually a Nolan fan. You may have read some of my thoughts about The Dark Knight. Interstellar made me actually angry (and I agree with Dan Harmon’s thoughts on it). And The Dark Knight Rises was so terrible that it made me think about how I was watching full grown actors pretending to be Batman and Catwoman and how incredibly ridiculous that was (in fact the only good thing about that movie was that it gave us this which still makes me laugh to this day #notsorry).
But then also I mean yeah ok Inception does have it flaws but it’s still an incredibly cool film and doesn’t get nearly enough love for how that scene towards the end when they all wake up on the airplane captures exactly that feeling when you wake up from a dream and you’re like: wait – what just happened? And Dunkirk for all it’s semi-submerged jingoism is actually well you’ve seen it you know how good it is (even Tarantino is a fan! LOL)
(Summing up my official position on Nolan is in 100% alignment with how my friend Rob so perfectly put it: “How is he so smart AND so dumb at the same time”?)
Watching the trailer and doing the maths in my head it seemed as if Tenet had got to be a sure-fire hit. I mean: Dunkirk is probably his best film and that was the last one he did before this so it had to make sense that Tenet was going to be on the same kinda level right? Plus the fact that it basically looked like it was going to be like Inception “But instead of dreams it’s time travel” made it seem like it was going to be an easy goal. Like if Radiohead said they were going to release a new album filled with guitars and rock songs (oh wait shit – that’s Hail to the Thief isn’t it?)
Yeah. Tenet is basically Hail to the Thief.
And The Dark Knight Rises.
And a Bond film.
Oh and Primer too.
But hey fuck – let’s start with the opening scene which is fucking insane in terms of it maybe being the best part of the movie (in the same way that the opening scene of The Dark Knight Rises with the planes doing crazy shit is the best part of that movie) and also the most holy fuck thing I’ve seen so far in terms of how a global pandemic can seriously alter the way things come across / invest images with this incredible resonance that makes the hairs on the back of your hairs stand up. I mean – part of me wants to say that it’s one of the most incredible cinema experiences of the year but lol it’s probably one of the only cinema experiences of the year I’m gonna have (did I see anything in Jan and Feb? Can’t remember…)
So for those of you who haven’t seen it Tenet opens up with a classical music symphony in Kiev (cute touch = the first sound you hear is the orchestra tuning up). The thing to note here is that I’m sitting in the front row of the Genesis Cinema with my mask firmly one and feeling ever so slightly freaked / stupid that I decided to risk my health going out to see a goddamn movie and even before the film started I’ve had firm but polite words with the guy who decided to sit right behind me saying: “erm – I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to sit there” (he moved) and so I’m hoping that the film will begin and I can do the whole forget about my corporal existence thing and just lose myself in the movie you know? (Aaah – the magic of cinema) and then well what the fuck I’m watching the screen and all I can see are people packed into this cinema (sorry classical music concert) completely ignoring any semblance of social distancing (do they want to get sick or what? I mean they’re not even wearing masks for godsakes)
Oh and then that’s when the terrorists show up.
And like part of my brain is all ooh cool let the games begin but the other part is chewing on the fact that I’m sitting on this red chair all calm and placid watching people who are behaving in the appropriate way and shit maybe I should be doing the same (you know: what is covid-19 apart from a really small terrorist right guys?) and there’s another part of me that feels like – well hang on maybe I’m overreacting a bit? Well up until the bit where the terrorists decide to gas everyone and everyone collapses in their seat and it all starts to feel a bit too much incredibly on the nose (people in a crowded auditorium being taken out by an airborne contaminant? WHEN THE FUCK WAS THIS FILM MADE? LAST WEEK??? OMG THE FILM IS ACTUALLY A METAPHOR OF WHAT IT’S LIKE GOING TO WATCH IT!?!).
And of course that’s the moment when our trusty heroes with their cool guns spring into action and start having a fucking shoot out amongst the unconscious bodies and it all got a bit too much for me. I mean if you gave me a blank piece of paper and asked me to sum up what it’s like going to the cinema in August 2020 it’s basically that – people shooting guns and looking cool over an audience of dead bodies (“They’re not dead – they just got knocked out by the virus… I mean… poison gas”). Like I was definitely hoping for some sort of unforgettable cinema experience when I got my ticket but this definitely was not the one I had in mind… (Did Christopher Nolan know coronavirus was going to happen and decided to make a film about it? Is that what happened here?)
I mean: that’s not even the only scene of the movie that does the whole coronavirus resonance thing. There’s also a bit where John David Washington inverts himself (don’t ask) and has to step into the non-inverted world and there’s this whole thing about how he has to wear a mask because he needs his own oxygen and the gravity is different out there that basically sums up the feeling of walking the streets during the first stages of lockdown even better than the experience itself. (I’m going to say it again: Did Christopher Nolan know coronavirus was going to happen and decided to make a film about it?)
“Welcome to the afterlife” etc
But wait – what’s the rest of the movie like?
Ah. Well… you know: how is he so smart AND so dumb at the same time?
The good news first – Tenet is very much the James Bond film that Nolan has been threatening to make his entire career only you know with added time travel (and hooray! James Bond is black at last!). I mean I was very heavily weaned on Bond films as a kid (by my own choosing) so much so in fact that for a few years there I think it’s fair to say that it pretty made up the entirety of my imaginative landscape. Although going back and rewatching them from the elevation of adulthood I can’t help but be almost actually offended by just how crap every single Bond film is. I mean – when was the last time you watched Goldfinger? Or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Or Goldeneye? OMG do you have any idea how completely and utterly turgid they are? Like just in terms of pacing they’re all off and badly put together and watching them feels like a literal drag. I mean I used to think it was the case that it wasn’t so much that a good Bond couldn’t exist but more just every time it’s manifested itself in our reality it’s always come out like a half-baked cake… And hell if there was one person that I thought would be able to make a Bond film that floated and bounced and had somesort of dynamism then it would have been Nolan but well – Tenet is sadly a movie defined by it’s – how do I say this? – leaden anti-buoyancy.
But hey – good game to play to while you watch it: Bond Bingo aka spot the scene where it’s Bond spying on the bad guy, Bond having dinner with the bad guy, having dinner with the sexy lady, Bond on a speed boat, Bond going with a team into battle, Bond trying to stop the bomb with the timer counting down thing, meeting up with Q…
“Now pay attention 007”
…meeting up with M…
…evil debonair Bond villain with an accent so thick you could eat it with a spoon…
…oh and of course sexy Bond Girl.
and etc etc and so on.
Although hey – maybe worth pointing out that the only Bond box that Tenet leaves unticked is the bit where the Protagonist actually makes out and does sexy time with the sexy lady. I mean – is this Nolan taking a cue from the Marvel movies and following the commandment that violence and wanton destruction is all fine and dandy but the only permissible bodily fluids allowed on screen is blood? I mean yeah I know of course that porn exists but why is not the merest hint of sexual relationships allowed on screen? Or it merely confirmation that for all his talk of being an “adult filmmaker” making “serious films” Nolan’s real target audience is sexless teenage boys? I mean would it really been so bad to have seen John David Washington get some and then make some crack about how “now that’s what I call inversion” or do we prefer our Hollywood leading men and women being completely chaste and sexless and risking nothing more titillating than you might see in a Saturday morning cartoon? Is everything just YA fiction now?
But yeah – about that having to stop the bomb with the timer counting down to doomsday thing. I mean: wasn’t that how The Dark Knight Rises ended? And you know – wasn’t it kinda played it back then already? Plus I mean – it’s a lot more scary to watch a timer on an atomic bomb click down to zero because I have a rough idea of the kind of things that an atomic bomb can do… But when the bomb is clicking down to erm wiping out everything from time (or something) it’s a bit more difficult to feel that fear. I mean this is kinda the problem of wanting to always go bigger and better – eventually you reach the point where it’s just pure abstraction and it’s difficult to fit it into your puny little limited human brain. Especially because there was a small part of me that hoped that Nolan was going to pull the same trick that he pulled off in Interstellar when Matthew McConaughey falls into the black hole and you think it’s the end and he’s dead only for the real crazy shit to begin (for the record I’m a big fan of the crazy infinite bookcase world just because it looks so cool and strange and new and interesting which is all I really want from a film I think) and like shit – wouldn’t it have been cool if Kenneth Branagh had got to push his evil button and we got to see a world where time had ended or whatever? Feels like that would have been a good third act twist maybe (and that creepy old white guy from the start reappears and says: “Welcome to the afterlife” again lol)
(Am waiting for the internet theory to kick off that says that John David Washington actually died in the first ten minutes and the rest of the movie was just the delusions of a mind raised on too many Bond movies and hero fantasties – except erm I’m not sure if that really adds anything to the movie / helps make anything make sense? Unless the thing you want to make sense is – man why was that movie so incredibly and awfully lame? Oh right it was the dying fantasy of a brain suffering from oxygen starvation or whatever).
But hey let’s get into the meat of why I think Tenet kinda fails as a good movie. I mean – there’s lots of kinda small reasons like the fact that sound mix is at the same kinda level as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises although with Tenet there’s not the excuse that people are wearing stupid goatse masks… (I mean there’s a scene where John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh are talking on headsets as they’re sailing on this cool futuristic boat thing and it was literally impossible to hear what they were saying which you know – score one point for realism but minus five points for understanding that in a movie it’s good if you have to kinda be able to hear what the characters are saying lol. But wait – that’s not my main issue / point.
My main issue is this – which you know is basically my theory of movies in general: films are basically about telling a story visually and so they work best when they make their point in cool and interesting visual ways. One of the best examples of this is with the first Terminator movie – thinking particularly of this bit right here:
I mean number one I don’t care who you are – this is a cool image. Evil robot skeleton with red eyes stepping out of a fire? Yes please. (In fact I think I read once that this image came to James Cameron when he was in the grips of a particularly bad fever and he basically based the whole movie around it which well – would make a lot of sense). But also hey – number two: it’s telling the story in an incredibly punchy and direct way. I mean Sarah Conner and Kyle Reese just blew Arnold Schwarzenegger in a big truck explosion and because they’ve never seen a Terminator movie before they think that’s the end of things and then well…
And I can confirm that as I’d never seen a Terminator movie before the first time I watched this my reaction was pretty much of the “HOLY FUCKING SHIT” variety. Which I think is what the magic of movies is all about. Indelible images that tell the story.
This was kinda my problem with Avatar which honestly I thought wouldn’t be a problem at all – but where were the cool images that told the story? Like yeah ok – big blue people and flying around on dragons on whatever but where was the one single moment that was as good as this:
And here’s the funny thing about Tenet – for all of it’s noise and bluster there are very very few images or sequences that actually leave their mark inside the brain (I mean I’m writing this a few days ago and I’m struggling to think of any that are really seared in there). Which is actually fucked up when you think about it seeing how this guy made Inception which is full to the brim of killer visual storytelling…
And oh but of course…
In comparison Tenet has… what?
Like there’s backward car flip (which is cool). There’s Clémence Poésy having bullets fly into her hand (with it’s low key intensity and sense of promise that might just be the best scene in the entire film) and yeah as previously mentioned the opening scene is cool but then the rest of it all is just a… kinda shapeless mush.
(Inception ends with that spinning top and Tenet ends with erm – a guy sitting in the back seat of a car. I think. It’s hard to remember exactly).
Yes there’s a scene where they crash a plane into a building which hey should be one of the coolest things in the world (yeah 9/11 was really bad but it was also really cool #notsorry) but when it happens it just feels like… a film crew crashed a plane into a building and you know again it’s telling comparing it to other big Nolan action set piece scenes of the past…. The truck flip in The Dark Knight. That opening plane scene in The Dark Knight Rises. There’s more movement and more dynamism in those examples than there is in taxiing a plane into a building. I mean Robert Pattinson makes a joke that he’s not going to fly the plane into the building but once he says it you can’t escape the feeling that it would have been way more exciting if he had.
(“Don’t be so dramatic?” No. Wait. Yeah – it’s a movie. I thought the whole point was to be as dramatic as possible dude).
But then I think this brings us round to the how is he so smart AND so dumb at the same time thing again. Because yeah making up cool new sci-fi concepts is a skill all of itself (“Inverted objects with their entropy reserved” is a very cool idea) which kinda leads you to think he’s really smart but then the fact that for this film it seems that he doesn’t really have any particular strong sense of constructing a story in a visual way makes it seem like he’s really dumb.
I think it’s often been remarked upon how silly it was that in Inception when the good guys were fighting the bad guys in snow both of them were wearing white (how is he so dumb?) and it seems as if he listened because in Tenet in order to tell two teams apart he gives on red armbands and the other blue armbands which kinda turns the mission to save the world from eradication into something that feels more like a bunch of guys playing paintball.
And well yeah then it turns out that one of the final twists was already done by Doctor Who several years ago sweetie (but then maybe that’s not his fault – not everyone knows how good Doctor Who can be lol)
But then maybe this is why Tenet reminds me of Us – because it’s a film that’s so overstuffed and seemingly trying to do so many things that it kinda just doesn’t really do anything. Like there’s a scene where John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh are facing off through frosted glass and it seems kinda weird and you can’t put your finger on it until you realise that oh wait Kenneth Branagh is actually inverted and having the conversation backwards and there’s a microphone that’s taking the backwards things he says and then flipping them forward and part of you goes – oh wow that’s so smart that someone would think and be able to write that and another part of you goes – oh wow that’s so dumb that you think that anyone would be able to keep up. I mean – maybe if it was a book or a comic book you could read it slowly and take the time to appreciate it and see how it works then yeah ok sure – but seeing how it’s a movie and everything is rushing forward at 24 frames a second it’s kinda tough to work out what exactly the fuck is going on. Like I imagine it won’t be long until the internet people start making flowcharts and maps of how everything fits together and you know yeah – while that kinda thing can be fun for a certain sort of brain I tend to be of the opinion that if you can’t understand a movie while you’re watching it then something has gone wrong somewhere…
But then I guess that’s Nolan for you huh? Making something that’s half Bond film and half Primer – with the downsides of both and the upsides of neither. Once more then: How is he so smart AND so dumb at the same time?
There’s a point where one character says “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” but that (opening scene aside) Tenet left me with little of both.
Oh and then right at the end a guy all the way at the back of the cinema coughed. Which – damn it – was just the type of beautiful concise storytelling that the film lacked. Oh well nevermind – I went back home and watched that first trailer again a few times and that made everything better.
Next time I’ll just wait for the DVD.