"This reversing the flow of time, doesn't us being here now, mean it never happened?" - The Protagonist
Trips to the cinema are not what they used to be. That’s for certain.
My last trip before we were in the grip of a global pandemic that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives world-wide was, in retrospect, so frighteningly normal. I went to see Pixar’s Onward. That was in early March. A routine trip. Food, a film. All the usual ephemeral things were there, people excitedly chatting in the foyer about the film they were waiting to see, people chatting excitedly about the film they’d just seen. Concession stands and ticket sales bustling, posters and large banners enticing the first summer blockbusters in a season that was fated not to happen. Because nine days later, everything was closed down. Cineworld would remain closed for five months.
As did everything else. From my personal point of view, everything I do was suddenly gone. No cinema, no Starburst magazine being published, the Siren Radio studio was closed. Okay, Amazon made a small fortune, I wrote some Cult Corner pieces for the site – and I can promise you a Shocktober to remember this year, expanding my 13 Screams to a bewildering thirty-one.
But, as things do, the lockdown passed, I’m enjoying working with Siren Radio and Starburst again, and Cineworld re-opened on August 14. My first trip there was on August 17 to see Unhinged which is a great film, very much a Falling Down on steroids and effective because of its plausibility in this quick to anger world we live in. But the bigger of the highly anticipated slate of releases that are being touted to entice us back to cinemas was Tenet – Christopher Nolan’s latest film, and one he took five years to write. (That’s okay, it’ll probably take me that long to understand it.)
But before I take a critical look at the film, let’s go back to the actual cinema visit. As I’ve mentioned, it’s very different. The multiplex is eerily quiet, more so when you consider that my visits were on rainy afternoons at the height of the holiday season. Nobody there. Even the concession stands seem to operate on a skeleton staff. All the posters in the foyer are missing because nobody’s certain when the tentpole films can be released, the staff as friendly and helpful – but everybody on the premises has to wear a mask. It feels strange sitting in a screening, surrounded by people wearing masks. I have to say the second visit felt a bit more comfortable than the first. But things will get back to a more “normal” normal from the “new” normal. But it’ll take maybe a year.
We get to the film quicker as well, with fewer ads and trailers. That’s a plus, as is the staggered seating and patrons’ reluctance to eat noisily, presumably because they’d have to remove their masks. (You’re allowed to eat and drink without a mask.) Oh, and fewer phones floodlighting the place during a movie. That gets a big thumbs up from me.
Now then, Tenet.
I’d seen the trailer, but couldn’t make head or tail out of what I was seeing. But I was intrigued enough to want to see it. After all, Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Interstellar are big favourites. (Even if it did take me a few viewings to fully “get” and appreciate Interstellar) And let’s be honest, you really don’t need to know a film’s plot from the trailer – the best ones are an enticing out of sequence glimpse that give few clues but no spoilers.
As the film opened, I was a little surprised to realise that I was watching a hard-hitting sequence about a terrorist attack on a Russian Opera House with CIA intervention. Okay – not what I was expecting, nor was the capture by hostiles of who I presumed was the lead agent, who took a suicide pill.
When the agent codenamed “The Protagonist” (John David Washington) is revived he’s sent on a mission and I found myself comfortably in bigger than life James Bond territory. Megalomaniac arms dealer needs taking down, has a wife he’s abusing who wants to leave him but can’t, the agent has an interest in the wife and makes a deal to steal some weapons grade plutonium in return for her release but we know that’s just going to be a ruse, right? Car chases, heists, explosions, twists, turns and surprises…I’m down with all that.
Except that’s kind of the background. The evil megalomaniac, Sator, (Kenneth Branagh) is receiving help from the future. (Whoa…. whaaaaat?) There are nine bits of something or other that when all together reveal an algorithm which will allow him to travel through time – and this is where I started to lose my understanding of what was going on. There are long explanations of how, for instance, bullets can travel backwards through time when shot from the future because their temporal entropy has been altered. It quickly becomes bafflingly hard to follow and harder yet to make any sense out of. The future people want the past changed to alter the course of climate change – at a cost that might wipe everything out a lot sooner – before we even get to that future they’re so miserable about. (See? Makes no sense, does it?)
Visually, it’s absolutely spellbinding, especially in a climactic battle scene where half the taskforce is moving forward, the rest in reverse and we get to see backward bullet impacts and explosions, but when the explanation is offered how both the first and second team can be there at the same time, with the first team having been there an hour earlier, now moving temporally backward, my head began to hurt and I wished I was just watching Back to the Future, which is far more my level.
The time travel paradox, where someone travels back and changes something that changes the present is a well worn sci-fi trope that has often been used to great effect, especially with the knowledge that they didn’t really change the past because it would’ve had to be the way it was in order for the hero to change it is something that’s fun to ponder and play with. But in Tenet, I’m afraid that Nolan has outdone himself with his overblown cleverness and produced a film that might be too smart for its own good instead of being James Bond with a lot of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff as a certain Time Lord might say.
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