Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” isn’t playing in New York, obviously, and Warner Bros. didn’t care if reviewers here saw it or not. But tonight I was able to pay for a show in Connecticut during its “early preview” stage before Friday’s nationwide opening.
First, I must say that Cinemark Theaters are very clean, and a quarter attended. It was a little eerie to set foot in a mall, let alone a cinema. But everyone was masked, and polite, and social distanced. The audience was as full as it could be given the situation, and pleasantly multi-cultural.
“Tenet” was preceded by what seemed like hours of Warners’ trailers including “Wonder Woman 84” and “Dune.” The former seems like it’s going to be fun. The latter trailer can only be seen in theaters now, it’s not on YouTube. I remember the original “Dune” all too well. So combine that with Denis Villeneuve’s trademark detached science fiction, and you can guess what “Dune” will be like. I’m certainly curious to see the film.
“Tenet” promised to be vague, confusing, puzzling. In some ways it is, but in many ways Nolan has bent over backwards to explain what’s going on. It’s not that difficult. This is a “Mission Impossible” or “James Bond” movie with John David Washington as the lead and the hero. As a friend in the UK said to me, if you follow him, you’ve got the movie. I did, and I really enjoyed it.
This is all about time travel, but not like in “Bill and Ted” or “Quantum Leap.” It’s a little more like the final “Avengers” movie in that sense. Time is moving forward and backward at the same time and in service of the plot: John David is trying to stop Kenneth Branagh from blowing up the world. Branagh’s wife, played so beautifully by Elizabeth Debicki, wants to be reunited safely with her little boy. Robert Pattinson is helping John David, and at some point Aaron Taylor Johnson appears as their Lando Calrissian.
What’s so interesting is that as “Tenet” becomes more and more puzzling, it gets more interesting. I do think it’s the cast, so well put together, who invest enough in the characters that you do care about them. It’s also helpful that we get unusual types like the terrific Dimple Kapadia who appears like Lois Smith in “Minority Report” to explain what the hell is going on. As with Ms. Smith, Kapadia affords us a sigh of relief, as in: Oh, that’s what this was all about. I feel better now.
It doesn’t hurt that Michael Caine appears as an early guidepost, and that Himesh Patel comes in later as an inside joke. (I won’t give it away but I though it was very clever.)
“Tenet” is not all sturm und drang. I laughed more than a few times, with Nolan, not at his expense. John David does a good job of keeping it all straight but still winking just enough at the audience so we’re not overwhelmed. I have no doubt, though, that none of the actors understood the movie while they were shooting it. I have a hunch they’re just as enlightened as we are when they see the final cut. Their strength is they sell it, and it’s sold.
Will I see “Tenet” again? Undoubtedly. The second will be much more fun. This time, I was leaning forward a lot to follow the action. This movie would benefit from captions. John David enunciates well enough, but the Brit accents are tough and there’s quite a bit of mumbling.
Still, the many set pieces are spectacular and memorable. There’s a backward-forward car chase that’s mesmerizing. The film opens with a riff on the real life 2002 Moscow theater terrorism episode in which audience members were taken hostage, and it’s brilliant.
Could “Tenet” be shorter? Yes, but everything can. There’s a soft section where the movie regroups, and actually it gave me time to think about what was happening and what I might have missed. But I’m grateful for a film that entertains and provokes, confounds, and bursts with invention.