Christopher Nolan’s 'Tenet' is disappointing. But it’s great for cinema

The acclaimed director’s new film is let down by a convoluted story but it makes a strong case for heading back to theatres in the time of Covid.

ByUday Kanungo
Christopher Nolan’s 'Tenet' is disappointing. But it’s great for cinema
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In the months of lockdown, I’ve often tried to visualise what a return to cinemas would look like. The release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet last month seemed a perfect opportunity to gauge this – it's arguably the only blockbuster in theatres that could persuade people to take a risk and see a movie the old school way. Many months of isolation and streaming cinema have surely contributed to a craving for a shared and spectacular big-screen experience that cinemas generally, and Nolan’s movies in particular, offer. But the perils of navigating through a carefree crowd in a Noida mall, where many might roam without masks, can make the most optimistic cinephile ponder: is it worth it?

Nolan’s big-budget spectacle Tenet had been billed as the movie to “save” cinema in its moment of crisis – a heavy burden to carry for any film. But if one could have predicted Covid and the ensuing closure of theatres, one would have doubtlessly nominated Nolan as the strongest candidate to resurrect cinema and coax hundreds to get out and experience it as it is meant to be. At a time when studio heads and streaming companies believe that cinema, for its survival, should adjust by tiptoeing around our demanding schedules, forsaking theatre releases and isolating individuals to their own screens and comforts, Nolan is one of the outspoken defenders of the magic of a large-screen, communal experience. Far from fading into oblivion, it is a gift that will keep on giving. There’s something genuine in what Nolan offers, a celluloid purism against the garish gimmicks of 3D and greenscreen, an ambitious and unadulterated aesthetic that pushes the scope of what visual storytelling could look like. As the critic Mark Kermode said, “There is no one else who has more faith in the power of the image.”

Yet, despite Nolan’s obstinate optimism, things have changed.

The theatre staff are already armed with many tools; the foyer is rather deserted. As I approach the entry, the routines and rituals of multiplexes make their way to my mind. A security guard gives me a namaste so robotic that it is almost sarcastic, the next one checks my temperature, and the third checks my ticket beside a sanitizer dispenser which I diligently use. Every face and surface of the multiplex emphatically reassures me of my safety – a film of virus-resistant fibre covers all door handles, staff regularly spray short bursts of sanitizer and the indoors are claimed to be regularly disinfected. Above the door, the neon letters announce: “Tenet (English), 5:30 PM, Subtitles.”

Almost as soon as the movie starts, one gets why exactly Nolan thinks cinemas are here to stay. The overwhelming sense of liberation for one’s eyes, the fact that the film surrounds you from all sides makes it hard to not register the magnitude of what we were missing. I follow the initial minutes simply tracing the perfect resolution of colours and shades, basking in the enormous expanse in which the action happens, enjoying the ideal darkness that I had struggled so much to create at home.

A maze of a plot

It is hard to criticise Tenet’s story because it is hard to know what it is. On the surface, we follow a character called “The Protagonist”, hired by an agency called Tenet, whose mission is to stop a world war and eventual destruction of the world. Inversion, a technique by which time and events run backward, is being used by the villains to destroy the past, and the protagonist must battle them by learning inversion himself.

But soon we are rushed into a maze of abstract concepts regarding physics, time and causality, reinforced by formulaic keywords. “Algorithm”, “passcode”, “detonate”, and “trigger” are all used in swift succession, with a “briefcase” thrown in for good measure. Through this web of cliches we struggle to discern the bare bones of the plot. While Inception, Interstellar, and the Batman movies all honourably chose to elevate the genre, Tenet tumbles down a vortex of spy-thriller cliches.

It moves from set piece to set piece, in one cosmopolitan city to another, with little regard for fleshing out the threads that connect them. I can’t speak for Oslo or Tallinn, but given that Mumbai is evoked by a scene in which the protagonist and Dimple Kapadia trickle through crowded multicoloured markets with “Jhumka Gira Re” wafting as background music, I think the residents of those two cities have reasons to be suspicious of the setting. More importantly, there is constant tension between its ambitious scale and the hollow empty core of its narrative. Large-scale stunts are propped up on thin, largely incomprehensible strands of the narrative, and it is difficult to understand why such grand, spectacular action sequences still feel so hollow.

Nolan blended action and emotion so well previously that it is impossible to understand how Tenet’s screenplay smells of the callous disregard of a first draft. Every character is so paper-thin, their motivations so devoid of emotional nuance that they crumble under the slightest introspection. What’s worse is that revisiting Tenet would make it no better, for the questions after viewing it are not aesthetic or philosophical, but merely mechanical – as I exited the theatre, a boy kept animatedly explaining to his friend how “inverted time” worked.

“Don’t try to understand it, just feel it,” a character says while explaining the concept of inversion. Except, we are neither instinctively nor narratively clear about what we are supposed to feel. Is it the friendship between two men that’s the narrative’s core, or is it a mother’s relationship with her son? It is irrelevant, since both are rather poorly sketched. Moreover, the plot has no shortage of complicated physics so that we effectively end up rationalising, not feeling. Usually, Nolan overlays the tedious texture of scientific explanation with something more invigorating – think of Leonardo DiCaprio explaining the science of building dreamscapes in Inception, for example. But here, Nolan does not even bother – all the physics is vigorously voiced by characters with all the urgency of the final minute of a written exam. Exposition has always been Nolan’s Achilles’ heel, but in Tenet it is overplayed to the point of parody. For a movie that demands not scientific understanding but sentimental feeling, it spends an awful amount of time bulldozing scientific-sounding jargon through to its viewers.

Even elements with traditional Nolan-esque flair in the film can be summarised by the reaction one might have to seeing an intricate gadget, i.e., cool. Reversing the action from future to past? Cool. Seeing the same sequence, once chronological, once inverted? Cool. A climactic battle where one army moves from present to past while the other moves from present to future? Very cool. But there is nothing beyond this, for the movie is too cool and aloof, so self-assured in its sangfroid, so coldly cerebral that I found myself actively wishing for sentimentality.

I returned disappointed. But another memory was running parallel in my mind, of me and my friend returning from a screening of Interstellar, almost six years ago to the day. I remember how speechless and stunned we were – not only at the magnificence of the film, but also at how estranged it had made us from daily life. We’d seen nothing like it, we had heard audible gasps and sharp intake of breaths, and the experience had made a community out of those 200-odd strangers assembled that day. For about three hours, the movie eclipsed us, keeping reality at bay. It made me realize that even though Tenet was a bad movie, I was locked away in another world, with anonymous people sharing that world with me. Hasn’t it been like this since the Lumiere brothers discovered what the illusion of 24 frames per second could do?

Although Nolan often uses deception inherent in the process of storytelling – dreams as deception (Inception), magic tricks as deception (The Prestige) – he is not a meta-cinematic filmmaker interested in deconstructing the medium. He clearly values deep immersion, and for him, cinema in theatres means an experience so immersive that the edges of the frame disappear. It is no wonder then that Nolan prefers IMAX and 70mm film formats, and has often railed against streaming services’ attempts at monopolizing the business and holding the theatres hostage – because there can be no immersion when a multitude of screens compete for our attention.

Nolan led many directors to protest against moving all Warner Bros films scheduled for 2021 to HBO Max without any exclusive theatrical release window – that’s a year without cinema experience. The chief executive of AT&T, which owns HBO Max and Warner Bros, made a statement that perhaps sums up the shift, “It’s to give customers the choice...it’s to allow the industry to have a transitional moment.” Nolan and his ilk could not be more opposed; for them the streaming model is too viewer-centric, leaving the audience prone to many intrusions – the next WhatsApp message, the pause/play button, even the sight of a smartphone within reach.

This is what Nolan fights for – viewers’ total submission to sight and sound. The physical largeness and giant shape of a theatre represents a broader metaphorical outlook that forms the core of Nolan’s philosophy – that it is the film which is larger than the viewer, that it must surround and intrude upon us, rather than being at the mercy of our whims and convenience. It places the work of art in the centre, around which viewers construct their aesthetic appreciation (and work hard at it), and not the other way round.

Even if Tenet struggled to break even, its call was answered by many, which might be a minor victory. Thus, it would be remiss if I talked only of Tenet’s failures, especially in this present context when the status of theatres is under cloud. The story is larger than Tenet – it crucially includes what we expect out of it, or, what we think a return to cinemas promises. It means to be able to stay away from phones and internet tabs and one last scroll through your social media feed while investing in a narrative. It also means the inevitable clash of your perceptions with those in the audience among you, sharing the silent absorption of a scene as well as the ripple of laughter in the dark. Tenet doesn't live up to its promise, but we must not underestimate the power of that promise.

Watching Tenet, therefore, might be one of those wrong things done for the right reason. One might even say that Nolan has lost the fight but won the battle.

Uday Kanungo is a writer and translator. He currently works at the Centre for Writing and Communication, Ashoka University.

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