“Tenet” – The Secret Success of Spies

Tenet, believe it or not, is currently in theaters.

After months of a sort of “will they, won’t they” back and forth with release dates, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, has officially hit theaters. The prolific filmmaker had pushed hard for the film to be released in theaters and not on any sort of Premium Video On Demand service due to his dissatisfaction with streaming service and their detriment to the theatrical experience. The irony here is that the film he’s releasing literally centers on a plot to save the entire world, and the idea of sending people out in groups, to a place where they may be exposed to a virus that has become a pandemic, feels like the antithesis to a movie about saving the world. So is Tenet worth the time and the risk? The short answer, not really.

I’ve been a fan of Christopher Nolan since he first released Memento, back in 2000. His films have been major events in my life, and usually are released around my birthday. He also helped bring back cinematic respect to a character I hold very near and dear to my heart. Overall, I think he has the ability to craft a truly fantastic piece of cinema that deserves to be witnessed on as big a screen as possible and deserves your full and undivided attention. Yet, with his last few films, it almost feels as if Nolan is starting to lose his edge.

Image via WB

Interstellar was a beautiful and wonderfully complex film that digs at the core of the audience’s humanity and mortality. But the length and complexity of the film makes it something that’s hard to connect with over and over again. Nolan followed that with Dunkirk, a film light on dialogue and with possibly the most simple plot he’s ever handled, along with some spectacular visuals. Dunkirk has some really wonderful moments, and it’s a fine story, but it’s long and at times a bit boring to be honest. Tenet isn’t boring, and it is long, but the pacing keeps you invested throughout. The biggest problem is honestly the empathy we feel with the main character, John David Washington’s The Protagonist.

The secret success to spy films is the ability for the audience to give a crap about the lead spy. For James Bond we have decades of material to watch and enjoy. For Mission Impossible we come for the insane stunts that Tom Cruise throws into each film, and stay for a well done action film. But for anything that’s a one off spy film, there needs to be a concrete reason for us to care about the lead. Washington does a great job playing the “good guy spy” while also balancing the reserved and pensive man of action we expect from the lead in a spy film. But his character gives you no reason to care for him outside of Washington’s own charisma.

Without that connection, there’s no reason to care about anything that’s happening. That’s even more of an issue with this film specifically. It’s a film that has a very complicated plot, that at times doesn’t all make sense on the first run through. Whether it’s the “time inversion” aspect of the film, the big threat, or the motivations of the characters, everything is so densely layered that it becomes inaccessible very quickly. At least with Interstellar you had the basic through line of a father wanting to get home to his children. With Dunkirk you could overlook the more personal element as it was a war film with a bit of a thriller element, so if you didn’t know how the real life story ended- then you could be more on the edge of your seat. Tenet just doesn’t have that kind of hook.

Image via WB

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of wonderful things about the film. The cast is phenomenal, with some awesome cameos, and truly stellar performances from everyone involved. The cinematography is beautiful. The score is loud and boisterous, which is expected of Nolan. The stunts and action pieces are a marvel to see unfold for the most part, but get a little dizzying as time goes on. (Pun slightly intended.) The thing is, none of it sells me on the fact that this needed to be seen in theaters, or that it needed to be seen in theaters now. This is a film that would have done AMAZING on VOD, because people could sit at home and analyze it together. Or had watch parties to help piece it all together.

I understand Nolan’s desires to keep the traditions of cinema alive. The movie theater is like my own personal church. I resonate with Nolans ideals in ways I can’t begin to explain fully. But pushing to have this big blockbuster movie come out during a pandemic, is honestly stupid and ridiculous. The film could have been pushed out to next year and done amazingly well. It could have been put on VOD and done amazingly well. Instead Nolan and WB are asking audiences to risk their own safety for a film that gives you no real reason to sit in a theater for two and a half hours during a pandemic, aside from the fact that Christopher Nolan made a new movie. And while I love Nolan as an artist, I can’t get behind that.

Rating: C

Tenet is currently playing in select theaters, but we recommend that you don’t go to a theater unless you feel 100% safe.

Image via WB



Written by Alex Lancaster

(Alex is a life long film fan, and has dedicated his life to watching, making and obsessing over films. His favorite film is Big Fish, and he despises Avatar. He has a 6 year old son. And a bad habit of saying more than he needs to. Follow @alex5348 on Twitter)

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