Sunday, September 27, 2020

Tenet (2020)

It is impossible to watch Tenet without comparing it to Christopher Nolan’s previous works, especially Inception (2010). Tenet’s uniqueness comes from its reliance on science rather than fantasy, physics rather than dreams.

At minimum, sci-fi needs either believable science or compelling characters. Tenet delivers the bare minimum science to sell its time travel premise, with characters that exist only to advance the plot. Fortunately, the plot has the density and intensity to carry the film, with or without the stars. It also lacks the grating presumption of superheroes, making the film watchable by an adult audience.


The film opens with a heist in an opera house, and it is immediately clear that something is abnormal. The perps execute the heist with incredible precision, and bullets seem to fly in reverse. After proving himself in battle against the Russian mob or something, our hero (John David Washington) is sent by the CIA to a secret back room somewhere to look at time-traveling bullets. The bullets have reverse chronology, so they are sucked into guns rather than shot out of them.

It turns out that almost any object can be made to travel backwards through time, including people. When an object is reversed, it experiences time in reverse, like a tachyon. Just step into a giant cylinder and you’ll be walking backwards before you know it.

What begins as an investigation turns into a save-the-world mission. The bad guy has a plan to erase the entire past and future of Earth. Due to the film’s assumption of a non-multiverse timeline, the destruction of past and future is an impossibility. But you already knew that for other reasons, like American movies having happy endings.

Predictability is one thing Tenet shares with Inception. Inception is completely predictable since the possibility of it all being a dream necessitates that conclusion at the first lapse in believably. Tenet sticks to its science from beginning to end, continuing to surprise for the first hour until the save-the-world bullshit starts. That first hour, though, is magic.

Nolan has a reputation for unwarranted hype, but Tenet feels like a movie he made for himself, marketing be damned. The reality is of course less romantic, with a budget in the hundreds of millions, plenty of advertising, and a positive response from the mass market. Whatever, it’s still a good movie.

The first Hollywood blockbuster of the year, Tenet is a good thing. Though the film medium is on its way out and the future of the American economy is uncertain, the last few big popcorn flicks continue to entertain. If you like puzzles and things that go boom, give Tenet a watch.

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