Among the many, many reasons why 2020 will go down in the history books, cinephiles will remember it as the year in which Christopher Nolan completely and totally disappeared up his own ass.

Tenet was made with a reported budget of $200 million, which means it needed to make $400 million just to break even. That might have been doable, if COVID-19 hadn’t thrown a wrench into the works. Theaters everywhere were shut down indefinitely, as the world struggled to contain a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus.

Then Christopher Nolan opened his big mouth.

Nolan absolutely insisted that the movie had to open on the big screens, as the film was made to be seen. As if any movie or any one man’s artistic vision was worth risking the health and safety of untold thousands. Alas, WB needed to make their money back, they needed to placate one of their highest-profile filmmakers, and they needed to see if any massive summer blockbuster would be enough to bring audiences back to theaters in defiance of a goddamn plague (to say nothing of state and local mandates directed toward containing said plague).

Tenet ultimately took in a grand total of $57.9 million domestic, for a worldwide total of $362 million. To put that in perspective, the similarly-budgeted Justice League — you know, the movie that lost WB so much money that they had to get bought out by AT&T — made $229 million domestic and nearly $658 million worldwide.

As a reminder, this huge and embarrassing stunt cost the company hundreds of millions at a time when AT&T is $150 BILLION in debt. So WB panicked, making their now-infamous choice to release Wonder Woman 1984 and their entire 2021 film lineup in theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. This — for reasons I’ve discussed previously — did not go over well, especially not with the filmmakers involved.

Then Christopher Nolan opened his big mouth.

“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan said Monday in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”

via Vanity Fair

I can’t find any specific reason why Tenet hasn’t hit HBO Max yet, but this statement leads me to suspect that Nolan is stonewalling that for his own petty reasons.

Chris, buddy, WB gave you everything you wanted. That’s why the studio is in financial ruin right now. Because they gave you an astronomical budget to make your movie as you saw fit. And then they released it in theaters like you asked. And then nobody saw it. Because of the goddamn pandemic.

Of course I don’t want to lay all 150 billion of WB’s problems at Christopher Nolan’s feet, but he sure as hell didn’t help. It was his big mouth and outsized ego that pressured WarnerMedia into making this decision, so maybe he might’ve done more good if he had sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up just this once.

Anyway, between Nolan’s pig-headed prejudice against online streaming and WB’s desperation to make back their money, the film can only be purchased — not rented, purchased — for online streaming at a price tag of $20. Fuck that noise. I kept waiting for the price to go down, and it never did, so I didn’t review the movie.

But then I found out that the film did indeed get a physical release on DVD and Blu-Ray. And where there’s physical media, there’s Movie Madness. Seriously, people, treasure your public libraries and physical storefronts and anywhere else DVDs can be rented or sold. Fucking use them or lose them.

On one level, Tenet is an international spy caper. John David Washington plays our unnamed Protagonist, recruited out of the CIA into a shadowy organization. Kenneth Branagh is on hand as the madman Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch putting together a superweapon to wipe out humanity. Elizabeth Debicki is our femme fatale — name of Katherine Burton — the estranged wife to Sator fighting for custody of their child. Robert Pattinson plays Neil, the sidekick/handler of our lead spy, Clemence Poesy plays our watered-down Q stand-in, Yuri Kolokolnikov plays the bad guy’s henchman, and so on and so forth.

But here’s the kicker: This particular spy thriller isn’t about Americans versus Russians, or even any two nations fighting each other. This is about the present versus the future. Which brings us to the film’s second level as a sci-fi time travel thriller.

See, the people of some distant future are angry because they live in a fucked-up world ruined by events and decisions made years before they were ever born. In response, these people of the future have decided that the best course of action is to reach back into the past and blow us all up as pre-emptive retaliation for the fuck-ups we’re going to make.

Confused yet? We’re just getting started.

The primary method of this warfare is a kind of time machine called a “turnstile”. The catch is that instead of instantly sending a person or object to a specified time or place, the turnstile “inverts” a person or object so they move backwards in time. For example, if a person wanted to travel a week into the past, they could go into the machine to invert themselves, wait a week, then go back into the machine to un-invert themselves and they’d be a week into the past.

Sound complicated? Well, just imagine if that person got into fights and car chases instead of merely sitting around. What’s even crazier is the whole concept of inverted objects — bullets stuck into plaster, flying back into the guns that fired them at some future point.

You can already see the problem here.

By their very nature, spy thrillers are devilishly complex. Even Bond movies nowadays have to deal with so many personal agendas, international politics, and various plans within plans for our main character to untangle. Additionally, time travel movies are notoriously complicated, with umpteen different rules and paradoxes and contingencies to sort out.

Now imagine the two genres put together, in addition to an innovative yet exceedingly convoluted method of time distortion like nothing ever seen before in pop culture. The complexities compound each other in no time, and the bullshit piles up so high that even the most savvy character in the cast can only throw their hands up and say “I dunno, just try not to think about it.”

Luckily, the cast and crew are good enough to make this into something at least partly salvageable. I didn’t know the first thing about our unnamed Protagonist or his partner Neil, but John David Washington and Robert Pattison are both so charismatic and they work so well together that I wanted to see them succeed. I wasn’t rooting against the bad guy because I cared about the temporal war nonsense, I rooted against him because Branagh chewed the scenery playing a toxic domineering bastard. Elizabeth Debicki is playing a domestic abuse victim concerned for her son? Great, I can follow that.

Michael Caine obligingly shows up for what’s basically a glorified cameo role. Himesh Patel gets a thankless role, but it’s great to see him getting more work. Clemence Poesy, alas, is primarily responsible for establishing “inversion” in a way that makes sense, and she’s sadly unequal to the task. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Dimple Kapadia as a capable higher-up in Protagonist’s organization, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson does quite well for himself when he finally shows up in the third act.

Then we have the fight scenes. Given Christopher Nolan’s noted preference for staging larger-than-life set pieces with minimal CGI, it should come as no surprise that there are some spectacular crashes to be seen here. The inversion gimmick makes for some truly enthralling car chases and fight sequences like no other film could offer, and that counts for a lot. I might also add that Nolan seems to have developed a proclivity for literal ticking clocks (see: the climax of The Dark Knight Rises) and he uses a lot of them in this picture. It’s a simplistic method for maintaining tension in a way that the audience can immediately understand with no effort, but it’s undeniably effective nonetheless.

When the movie is focused on straightforward action and exotic locales, it works superbly well. When it spins off into philosophical debates about fate versus free will and whether events can (or should) be undone, the film goes limp. And when the movie tries to explain its own batshit internal logic, it typically raises more questions than answers.

All told, I put Tenet in the same class as Prometheus — both technical marvels that are spectacular and exciting to watch, yet both are so frustratingly opaque that they try to tackle all sorts of heady questions and fail spectacularly. This is a movie that explicitly says “this is all too complex, so don’t bother to think about it” while also trying to pass itself off as a movie that makes you think, trying to have it both ways. Fuck that.

It’s entertaining as a brainless action thrill ride, but for a two-and-a-half-hour movie — with a reported budget of $200 million — that clearly aspires to be so much more, that’s simply not enough. Of course I appreciate a filmmaker who tries to break the mold, and I respect any filmmaker who can talk a major studio into throwing so much money into such a bonkers original IP, but Nolan flew too close to the sun this time.

If you’re looking for a genuinely smart and satisfying action thrill ride with a time travel gimmick, I’d strongly recommend Edge of Tomorrow over this one.

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2 thoughts on “Movie Curiosities: Tenet

  1. Like Tim Burton (another Batman movie director), Christopher Nolan is a director with a distinct style of weirdness. In some films, it works. In some films, it doesn’t. Everything I’ve heard about this film indicates that this was one of the films where Nolan’s style of complex stories didn’t quite work.

    And yes, his ego didn’t exactly help matters any. Honestly, I’m not sure if this film would have made enough money to ‘break even’, even if the pandemic hadn’t happened.

    1. A long time ago, Kyle Kallgren made a great video about how Tommy Wiseau should’ve been the last nail in the coffin of the modern “auteur”. Movies — especially $200-million-budgeted blockbusters — are so much bigger than any one man, and it’s time we all accepted that.

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