© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy
A few weeks ago Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster movie Tenet (2020) arrived in Sri Lanka.
Tenet must have been welcomed by Sri Lankan cinema owners, because for months after the easing of the country’s strict Covid-19 lockdown they were able to show only a meagre selection of movies. For example, once the Savoy Cinema in our neighbourhood in Wellawatta had reopened, it was limited to showing the Sri Lankan / Sinhala comedy drama The Newspaper (2020); and Frozen II (2019) from the previous year’s Christmas season; and something called Primal (2019), starring Nicholas Cage as a big game hunter, of which orcasound.com noted: “All you need to know is that the best scenes in the film are those between Cage and a red parrot. They have the best on screen chemistry of any of the actors.”
Yet when my partner and I went to see Tenet a few afternoons ago, we had the cinema almost to ourselves. Only one other couple was present, and they walked out two-thirds of the way through, presumably for reasons I’ll talk about in a minute. Admittedly, we’d decided to treat ourselves for this, our first visit to the cinema in absolute ages, and booked seats in the high-end Gold Standard Theatre in the cinema complex above the swanky Colombo City Centre shopping mall. The Gold Standard Theatre contains only a small number of seats, so that those seats can be as big and comfortable as possible. But despite the fact that the place was designed for a small audience and despite the high price (by Sri Lankan standards) of the tickets, I’d expected to see a few more folk there.
The fact is, for all its spectacle and entertainment value, Tenet is not a movie with obvious mass appeal. It’s challenging – at times, bloody bewildering. I can imagine Hollywood bigwigs experiencing an initial burst of excitement that someone had had the balls to deliver a big-budget sci-fi movie part of the way through the Covid-19 pandemic, one that would hopefully encourage the pandemic-cowed public to venture into cinemas again – but then gnashing their teeth when they realised that Christopher Nolan had created something as likely to exhaust the viewers’ braincells as it was to get their adrenalin flowing. No doubt those afore-mentioned Sri Lankan cinema owners have felt the same emotions recently.
Just how mentally taxing is Tenet, then? Well, you need to keep your wits about you from the start. There’s a lot going on even in the first few minutes. An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) barely manages to survive a hostage-siege-rescue operation in Ukraine and then finds himself opted into a top-secret organisation called Tenet, which is grappling with the phenomenon of mysterious materials that can travel backwards through time, for example, bullets that shoot back into their guns before you fire them. These materials are traced to arms-dealing Russian oligarch scumbag Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who seems to have established a link with unseen forces in the future, who for some nefarious reason are sending the stuff back to him in the here-and-now.
There follows a series of adventures in India, Britain, Italy, Norway, Estonia and Russia where Washington tries to close in on Branagh, discover what he and his futuristic allies are up to and – when it transpires that they’re up to something very bad indeed – stop them from doing it. To this end, he has to win the trust of Branagh’s abused and disillusioned wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and enlist her to his cause. Also, he encounters several giant whirligig-type devices that can change the orientation by which you’re moving through time, switching you from moving forward through it to moving backwards through it, and vice versa. And that’s when things start to get truly complicated…
I’ll confess that there was a period of 15 or 20 minutes (which coincidentally was when the other people in the cinema threw in the towel and left) when I hadn’t a clue what was going on. But I kept watching and eventually, towards the movie’s end, I figured the plot out. Well, I think I figured it out. Though afterwards, I have to say, I tried not to discuss the intricacies of Tenet too much with my partner, for fear that she’d point out something to me that made me realise I hadn’t understood it at all.
Some critics have blamed the film’s sound mixing, claiming that it’s difficult to follow what’s happening because you can’t hear all the dialogue clearly. But to be honest I don’t think there’s much exposition in the dialogue anyway. Nolan bravely forces his audience to concentrate on events on the screen and, from those, gradually pick up the gist of things.
So that’s the challenging part of Tenet described. What about the rest of it? I’m pleased to say that it’s generally really good. For a start, it looks magnificent, at least on a big screen. Leave out the time-travelling element and what you have is Christopher Nolan doing his version of a James Bond movie. Like the average Bond, Tenet features a string of glamorous locations, speeding from one to the other so that you never have time to get bored. Ensconced on his luxury yacht and simmering with a mixture of 60% pure evilness and 40% teeth-grinding jealousy as 007, sorry, John David Washington, wins the affections of his missus, Branagh is a pure Bond villain – most closely modelled, I’d say, on Emilio Largo in 1965’s Thunderball.
© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy
Several of the action set-pieces resemble turbo-powered versions of set-pieces from old Bond films too. The bit where Washington and his accomplice Neil (Robert Pattinson) infiltrate the multi-storey stronghold of an Indian arms dealer put me in mind of the bungee-jumping sequence at the start of 1995’s Goldeneye, although here Washington and Pattinson somehow manage to bungee-jump upwards rather than downwards. The London section sees a brief but pleasingly nasty fight in a restaurant kitchen that’s reminiscent of the kitchen fight in 1987’s The Living Daylights. And a vehicle-chase scene has Washington trying to board a hurtling armoured truck by swinging across to it using the ladders on top of a similarly hurtling fire engine, which calls to mind a sequence in 1985’s A View to a Kill. All right, in the 1985 movie, the person on the ladders was a 57-year-old Roger Moore and the driver of the fire engine was Tanya Roberts from TV’s Charlie’s Angels (1980), so Tenet’s version of this is rather less cheesy.
The new official Bond movie No Time to Die – the trailer for which was actually shown in the cinema before Tenet started – will have its work cut out to match the spectacle that Nolan offers here. Indeed, it’s just been announced that the release of No Time to Die has been pushed back from November 2020 to April 2021, supposedly because of fears about how the pandemic will impact on box office takings. I can’t help having a sneaking suspicion, though, that after seeing Tenet Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli took fright and decided they needed more time to beef up their movie’s action sequences.
Tenet’s cast is also a pleasure. Washington has received some flak from critics for playing his character as a ‘cypher’, which I can’t understand. I find him a very personable actor, with as much charisma as his dad, and besides his character does display some humanity, largely in relation to Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, whom he tries to protect from her oligarch husband even as he reluctantly encourages her to conspire against him. The elegant Debicki gives a good performance too, one combining vulnerability with resilience. I particularly like the fact that Nolan cast a tall actress here. 190 centimetres in height, Debicki looms some 15 centimetres above both Washington and Branagh, but this isn’t allowed to be an issue. (I can think of certain temperamental, short-ass actors of yesteryear who’d probably have refused to work with her.)
And Robert Pattinson gives an endearing turn as the bemused, raffish Neil, shaking off memories of how he once had to play a spangly adolescent vampire in the limp Twilight movies (2008-12). Mind you, at times, it feels like he’s channelling the Eames character played by Tom Hardy in 2010’s Inception, the movie in Nolan’s back catalogue that Tenet most resembles.
In conclusion, then, Tenet is an unlikely mixture, simultaneously a blockbuster homage to the James Bond movies and an enigma that’s completely unafraid to baffle its audience. It’s half Goldfinger (1964) and half ‘go figure’. I enjoyed both halves, although I’m glad there was plenty of action and spectacle to soothe my eyes even when my brain felt beleaguered.
© Warner Bros. Pictures / Syncopy