‘Tenet’: We Risked Our Lives for THIS?

The time-traveling spy thriller that saved movies or didn’t

I saw the Tenet movie. As a Christopher Nolan film, it has all the warmth of a meat locker and features a Ludwig Göransson soundtrack that makes you feel like you’re inside a shipping container. This is appropriate, since half the movie takes place inside shipping containers, except that these shipping containers are time-traveling shipping containers. The lighting is about equally bright inside the shipping containers and outside. In Christopher Nolan movies, the sun never shines, even when it does.


TENET ★★★(3/5 stars)
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring:John David Washington, Robert Pattison, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Running time: 150 mins


John David Washington plays a CIA agent who a shadowy organization recruits for an important operation on the basis of his lack of personality. He encounters Robert Pattison, who may or may not have COVID in real life but in this movie has the awesome name of Neil. Elizabeth Debicki, playing a popsicle stick, also appears as a key plot point, married to Kenneth Branagh, who sports a salty beard and a hammy Russian accent. Tenet is a keyword that the shadowy organization gives to Washington. He uses it once or twice, but no one seems to care. Michael Caine also appears in one scene to do some sort of Basil Exposition bit.

Tenet has a plot. It involves some kind of device from the future and an algorithm that people from the future are using to destroy the past, or vice versa. None of this means anything, but the characters talk about it in dialogue from a bad existential play. No one exhibits any real human characteristics or emotion. However, the time-travel device and the algorithm do allow for some amazing action sequences, called “temporal pincer movements”, that involve bullets going back into guns and cars reconstructing themselves after a crash. Washington fights himself, Pattison rescues himself or maybe kills himself, it’s hard to tell. There’s a guy with a cool accent who doesn’t seem to have a name. They have to wear oxygen masks while they’re traveling through time or else they won’t be able to breathe or something.

It’s all very impressive and viscerally involving, though Top Secret did it better nearly 40 years ago.

 

At one point, a cargo airplane slams into an art storage facility, which is apparently located at an airport. That scene appears in the Tenet trailer and also in Airplane! itself.

 

That’s exactly what the scene looks like, except with a Ludwig Göransson score and a bunch of cars and bullets going backwards.

In this grim take on a James Bond movie, Nolan uses such glamorous locations as Oslo, Norway; Talinn, Estonia; Mumbai, and a few shots of what appear to be the Amalfi coast. Washington and Pattinson are about as attractive a male cast as you can put in a movie these days, but they never appear shirtless. Debicki kisses Washington on the cheek at one point, but it appears to be for time-travel reasons. No one raises his or her voice or really attempts to act, other than Branagh. You can take the man out of Shakespeare, but you can’t take the Shakespeare out of the man.

Also, they don’t use the reverse-time trick in the proper way. Maybe someone should use the device to reverse the flow of time and put the virus back into that Wuhan bat. And someone must stop the guy at the deli from putting mayonnaise on my sandwich. Zip zap zop, the jar of mayo closes and the knife goes back on the shelf. No one need ever know. The fate of the world depends on it.

Tenet is the movie that’s supposed to save cinema. While I believe that theaters should be open and we should trust the public to make their own decisions about their health, I don’t know that this is the chosen one. It’s got some cool mind tricks, but it’s just not that fun to watch. As usual, Christopher Nolan takes himself way too seriously. In a normal world, this would have been the number-five blockbuster of the summer, but as it stands now, it’s the only game in town, and we’re already basically at Labor Day.

I won’t go to the movie theater again until the next time I do.

This concludes my review of the Tenet movie.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

12 thoughts on “‘Tenet’: We Risked Our Lives for THIS?

  • September 3, 2020 at 9:07 pm
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    The composer was Ludwig Göransson not Hans Zimmer. Give him a google, you might be familiar with some of his other work.

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  • September 9, 2020 at 8:54 pm
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    You caught WAY more than I did. I have no idea what this movie was about. Great review, BTW

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    • September 9, 2020 at 9:39 pm
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      There was a piece in Slate where the author watched it two times and really explained it well but he also put up like five weenie warnings about how dangerous it is to see a movie during the pandemic, and I was like “yeah yeah I get it.” Anyway, thank you!

      Reply
  • September 13, 2020 at 10:15 am
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    Really inappropriate to inject your Trumplike view of the virus into this movie review, making sure to work in that it came from China, and “playing it down” yourself, claiming it’s a personal choice whether to engage in risky behavior, as if only you would get sick, no one else would then get it from you.

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    • September 13, 2020 at 10:53 am
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      It is not “Trumplike” to mention that the virus originated in Wuhan, it is merely a historical fact and appropriate to a movie about reversing the flow of time. And it is a personal choice to go to the movies. A choice that I, and millions of other people, have chosen to make. It has been ten days since I went to see Tenet and I regret to inform you that I have passed away.

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      • September 17, 2020 at 3:37 am
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        I like how you say “it’s a personal choice” like that absolves you of any possible consequence. Everything’s a fucking personal choice, man. It’s a personal choice for the guy next to you on the bus to decide whether he whips it out and starts jerking off, but I bet you’ll still be upset at him if he does. But then, it was your personal choice to ride the bus at the same time he did, after all, and I think we should trust the public to make their own decisions about where to masturbate. If anyone doesn’t like it, they can stay home.

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        • September 17, 2020 at 6:26 am
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          Easy to blame individuals who go to the movies for the spread of a virus while not blaming governments for inadequately protecting nursing-home residents. Millions of people around the world have gone to the movies (and ridden buses) since the pandemic started, and you can’t trace one single case back to a movie theater. We continue to place the blame on theaters, and bars, and gyms, and other normal places where consensual activities occur while ignoring how and where the virus actually spreads. Everyone thinks they’re a damn hero of the pandemic and wants to believe that their sacrifice has been meaningful. But it hasn’t.

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          • September 17, 2020 at 5:49 pm
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            Bro you run a film site and you didn’t even bother to look up who did the soundtrack when reviewing a movie under your own byline. But yeah, I bet you’re doing real solid research on epidemiology

  • September 17, 2020 at 5:57 pm
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    Yeah, I made a mistake on that and corrected it immediately. The fact remains that Tenet was boring and pretentious. It’s also true that there have been lots of scientists warning about the dangers of going to the movies, but also true that there has not been a single case of COVID attributed to going to the movies. Not in the U.S., not in South Korea, not in Taiwan, not in Europe, nowhere. You can do all the “research” you want, but will come up with the same conclusion. Not one report.

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    • September 17, 2020 at 6:01 pm
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      And no, I do not feel personal responsibility about the spread of COVID-19, because I do not have COVID-19 and therefore am not spreading it. If I were a governor who had allowed infected people to enter nursing homes, or a prison warden, or the head of a corporate chicken-processing plant who refused to close despite a massive outbreak among my employees, THEN I would have personal responsibility. We are placing the blame on our friends and neighbors (and strangers and Straw Men on the Internet), while refusing to place any responsibility on the heads of people who are actually responsible for significant spread of the virus.

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  • September 17, 2020 at 6:31 pm
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    AND ANOTHER THING. You compare my choice to go to the movies to some guy “whipping it out and jerking it on the bus.” But that activity is actually ILLEGAL. As opposed to going to the movies. It’s not like I went to a secret movie, or went to a movie against the law. We shouldn’t demonize people for legal, consensual behaviors. Going to the movies is not murder.

    Reply

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