When Christopher Nolan plunged into a dream, a dream, a dream in Inception, was it hard to imagine what he could do to surpass himself? Kill Batman (The Dark Knight Rises)? A tsunami in space (interstellar)? A time travel thriller is Nolan's next big idea, which he wonderfully implements in Tenet, a monumental film performance that at least optically does justice to the hype.
On a giant Imax screen, the film swallows you whole and drops you right in the middle of the action – past, present and future. Nolan puts you in the role of John David Washington's "The Protagonist" and leaves our hero unnamed because he is the audience's point of view in this time-leap adventure.
The protagonist's mission? To save the world from a global pandemic. If that sounds like Nolan does it himself with Tenet, then that's because it is. Outside of the screen, the film bears the burden of multiplex-saving, world-saving expectations. Tenet is the first film to reopen theaters since the pandemic began. It's the event where theater chains hope to be big enough, brave enough, and exciting enough to get people back to theaters. With a $ 250 million budget from Warner Brothers, it's certainly big enough.
Nolan and the cameraman Hoyte van Hoytema have made a film that puts us in a heightened reality and shoots on 70 mm film with Imax cameras. Everything about Tenet is bigger and more real, with images so clear that Windex could erase them. Nolan avoids computer effects and strives for authenticity, even if it means crashing a plane into a building or filming the opening sequence in Ukraine.
In a Kiev opera house, a flood of terrorists is just entering the stage when the conductor raises his baton. Outside, a group of CIA agents are waiting for a signal. They select a handful of agents to go inside, and one of them (The Protagonist) maneuvers to rescue a man on the balcony who greets him with an encrypted sentence: "We live in a twilight world." Moments later, a bullet returns back out of a seat and the wood around the bullet hole falls back. Huh? That's not normal. On the other hand, there is nothing in Tenet.
The protagonist is then released from the CIA and recruited by another organization. The mission is known as Tenet, although it could just as easily be called "Mission Impossible to Understand". It turns out that the future has sent objects into the present. "We think it's some kind of inverse radiation," explains one scientist (Clemence Poesy). She shows him a gun that sucks bullets from the target into the chamber. Not only do we see bullets going backwards, but smoke, cars, characters, and explosions as well. Nolan likes to do things like that. In Inception, when the hallway turns in Cillian Murphy's dream, it is visually dazzling. The metaphysical stuff in Tenet is even smarter.
The best sequence occurs when a car is backing up during a chase on the highway. It's the visual blockbuster moment of the year that audibly gasps at the show in San Diego, where the theaters reopened to 10 percent capacity. We were 20 in a 500-seat auditorium and at least five people walked out, noticeably during exposure to radium (or is it plutonium?), Time travel, and time reversal.
Suffice it to say, the story is hard to follow – a bit like solving a Rubix Cube while running a marathon – backwards. What it saves is Nolan's action, which is dedicated to James Bond films. Indeed, take away the time travel gimmick and you have 007 archetypes left: the spy (The Protagonist), his criminal partner (Robert Pattinson), a Bond girl (Elizabeth Debecki), and a Bond villain (Kenneth Branagh) ) which is basically DR.
But Tenet is so much more than a big budget spy film. It is a daring, surprising and utterly original work that is awesome in its spectacle and haunting in its mesmerizing, dreamlike form. It's the kind of movie that makes you wonder, is this real? And when the spell breaks and the credits roll it's almost like waking up from a dream, in a dream, in a dream.
Unlike other films that have been reviewed by LA Weekly in the past few months, Tenet is only available in theaters and not available digitally. With LA County's theaters still closed, like our reviewer, you have to go to nearby San Diego or, like this weekend, the Orange County theaters, which were allowed to reopen this weekend. Click here to see the nearest theaters in your area.