“Tenet” is the only movie I’ve ever seen in which I couldn’t follow a fistfight. John David Washington, as an unnamed CIA agent, is facing an enemy combatant who’s dressed in what looks like riot gear. As the two pummel each other, we’re supposed to hone in on the fact that Washington’s character is moving forward in time while his antagonist is moving backward in time. I honed in, all right. I furrowed my brain and concentrated on every movement. Yet the more I honed, the more questions I had. Questions like: Does the person moving backward in time have an advantage? Is the outcome of the fight preordained? If so, what’s at stake? And by the way, WTF is going on in this fight anyway? The questions were not fun ones. It felt, rather, as if I was designing a pop quiz for myself, one that I was doomed to fail. (If I were teaching a course in “Tenet,” my one homework assignment would be: Find yourself a good James Bond thriller and watch that instead.)
I do realize that in a technological culture of proud information overload, everything I’ve just said officially marks me as a Clueless and Possibly Even Stupid Movie Watcher. I didn’t get “Tenet” — I couldn’t follow it, I didn’t understand it, I couldn’t begin to explain it.
I did, however, think that the film was reasonably intoxicating for the first 45 minutes or so, when Washington, exuding a brainy aura of danger all his own, toys with Kenneth Branagh’s icepick-hearted Russian gangster baron by arranging for stuff to happen like a 747 smashing into an airport building that houses an airlocked vault full of priceless paintings. (That sequence is like something out of a ’70s disaster movie, only not cheesy.) Or when he infiltrates the toxic heart of the broken-but-welded-together-by-coercion marriage of Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki. And when the concept was introduced of objects from the future moving backward through time — and when we learn that Branagh’s ubervillain has access to these objects because he’s cutting deals with forces from the future, which is why he has the power to end the world — I thought, “Okay, that sounds intriguing.”
Christopher Nolan movies always sound intriguing. So does the notion of a Nolan narrative with rules that are just tantalizingly out-of-reach enough to tease and tickle your brain. Yet there’s a natural human inclination to want to see even the most intricate of movie puzzles come together in a cathartic way that finally makes you go “Aha!” And according to the Nolan head-scratching aesthetic, the way things fit together is always rather…abstract. You’re presented with the idea of people entering dreams on different levels, but regardless of how many times you watch “Inception,” the way it actually works comes down to “Don’t sweat the details! Sink into the concept and enjoy the ride!” By the last act of “Tenet,” which is a grandiose action battle full of explosions that run backward (the sand funneling down into the earth, because those forces are moving in reverse), you can see that the effects are cool, and the idea is cool, but how the logistics of it all fit together remains barely coherent, which kind of limits the fun.
I say all this not because I have any great desire to re-review “Tenet.” The critics have spoken on it, and the general line seems to be: The film doesn’t entirely make sense, but that’s okay, because even when it doesn’t it’s such a bravura spectacle of head-spinning awesomeness — or something — that our heads are spun…sort of. Which is fine. Nolan made the greatest comic-book movie that anyone will probably ever make (“The Dark Knight”), as well as another film I revere (“Memento”) and a couple I totally enjoy (“The Prestige,” “Batman Begins”), as well as a war film (“Dunkirk”) shot from such a pristine God’s-eye view that its greatest trick isn’t the way it manipulates chronology; it’s the way the film encourages you to forget that you’re watching a vision of World War II in which ruthless slaughter is always on the back burner. (Nolan is a cinematic badass, but he’s also a courtly English gentleman.) I confess, however, that I’m starting to weary of the Nolan mystique, because too often he can’t seem to decide whether he wants to be Stanley Kubrick or the world’s most grandly slipshod crafter of cinematic acrostics.
All of which is to say that when I finally caught up with “Tenet,” just a week ago, venturing out to see my first movie in six months at a multiplex in Hoboken, N.J., I found the whole experience more than a little alienating, and not because the COVID part — the social distancing in the theater, the fact that I had to leave the city I live in (New York) to see a movie — got in the way of my enjoyment. No, that was (mildly) annoying. But what I discovered, to my surprise, is that “Tenet,” in all its high-toned kinetic quasi-obscurity, completed the alienation of the experience. Rather than offering a great escape from the COVID blues, the movie was perfectly in sync with the COVID blues. Which is exactly what made it the wrong film for this moment.
To be clear, I’m not blaming the commercial disappointment of “Tenet” in the U.S. marketplace on the fact that it isn’t a better movie. “Tenet” was put out there as the great flickering cinematic candle that would draw 10 million human moths to its flame, and on that level it perfectly fit the bill. Nolan’s films — including the ones I’m a nay-sayer on, like “Inception” — tend to be major hits. As a director, he’s got a vast reverent following, an event-status aura, a gotta-see-it brand. And “Tenet” hits all those buttons. That’s why the film has done well internationally. The fact that it underperformed in the U.S. is clearly a result — and a barometer — of the skittishness with which Americans still regard the prospect of going out to see a movie during the pandemic.
If “Tenet” didn’t reel ’em in, probably nothing could have. That’s why movies from “West Side Story” to “No Time to Die,” in the wake of “Tenet’s” underwhelming performance, moved off the 2020 calendar. If one of those films had opened in September instead of “Tenet,” would it have performed better? Maybe, but probably not enough to make a difference.
Yet even as the future of the American moviegoing experience hangs in limbo, with theaters that have been desperate for product now facing a drought for the rest of 2020, the issue isn’t simply: If you put a big movie in there, how many people will show up? I mean, that’s kind of the issue. But the one lurking behind it is that moviegoers need to feel that there’s a reason to go out to the movies, and that reason can’t just be a matter of hugeness, spectacle, or Christopher Nolan’s dazzlingly cold-eyed and semi-illogical poetic action sequences.
No, the reason that people are going to want to go back to the movies is joy. That’s what they want to feel; that’s the feeling that sitting at home can leach away. And “Tenet,” while marketed as a great escape, is a movie so tangled up in itself that it turned out to be as joyless an experience as the very prospect of going to see a movie during COVID. Not enough people went, but what I really wonder about is the feeling it generated among those who did. Did it play like the kind of movie you hope there’ll be more of? Or did it play like the kind of movie that makes you go, “COVID, shmovid. Next time, I’ll stay home.”