Tenet ★★★★½

"Don't try to understand it. Feel it."

In lieu of another late period Michael Mann digital masterwork (which, thanks to COVID, we may possibly never get - RIP TOKYO VICE), TENET will have to do. A willful abstraction of the action movie, we're dropped into the middle of a world we do not understand, following an equally confused man with no name as our Protagonist, and forced to absorb every last detail as it's shoveled at is, unraveling an odious Bondian threat to mankind that involves time travel, both forward and backward.

But there's no damaged pixels here; no live-wire camerawork that pushes the medium's tech forward as the narratives transmute '80s cop shows and serial killer thrillers into immersive procedurals and globe-hopping melodrama revolving around rogue computer hackers. Instead, we're treated to Chris Nolan's steadfast commitment to celluloid and old school craftsmanship, all in service of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE set pieces and dense conversations regarding the Grandfather Paradox. Violent heists are focused, almost to a myopic degree, on the mechanics of both plan and execution, as the click of an oiled gun, seconds required to escape an airless corridor, and heat from an airplane being straight up kamikazed into a posh storage depot are equally essential to the movie's visceral wavelength. Car chases and hand-to-hand brawls are vertiginously inverted, depending on which direction we're currently traveling. Where Sonny Crockett insisted gravity cannot be negotiated with, TENET disagrees. It just all depends on whether you're willing to give yourself over to the woozy fabric of this temporal Leanian epic.

Still, the basic emotions at play remain elemental, just as they were in Nolan's other pieces of pop entertainment. Husbands desiring to recall (or forget) what happened to their slain wives, a cop wracked with guilt over the murder of his partner, a billionaire turning the pain of his parents' untimely demise into his own form of justice, soldiers and countrymen looking to rescue comrades from certain doom. Here, we have a man attempting to prevent holocaust, a mother wishing to retain the adoration of her son (while freeing herself from an abusive man), and a villain who cannot bear to see the world continue without his influence. And Nolan's certainly having a ton of fun in-between these otherwise melancholy spinning tops. I mean, why else would you have macho exchanges where Kenneth Branagh's cartoonishly accented bad guy threatens to (quite literally) stuff John David Washington's balls down his throat, Michael Caine quips about British fashion snobbery, or Robert Pattinson does his best Denholm Elliott as a lethal spy? This is pulp, after all. Lean into it a bit.

Perhaps the most (in hindsight, unintentionally) cutting sentiment TENET evokes comes from its goofiest element: a possibly world-ending MacGuffin known as "the algorithm". Obviously, being a vocal champion of celluloid and communal viewing, there's a cheeky bit of winking at play in Nolan's script. Streaming is the time-altering existential threat to theaters' continuation on this planet; a once avoidable grim fate now possibly sealed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of how good or bad TENET is, it's legacy will unfortunately be forever married to its marketing as the movie that would "save" what Disney now terms as a "legacy" method of exhibition. It's impossible to avoid the irony, as this relationship has (and will) continue to be pointed out by critics as they wrestle with TENET’s place in cinema's uncertain future.

But the question still remains: is the battle to change the course of history a futile one? Maybe. Maybe not. I saw TENET in a theater; a choice I'm still not sure was right or not, despite the fact that I now also bartend (clad in mask and gloves, just as I was in the otherwise empty auditorium) 40+ hours a week in order to make ends meet. However, one thing was clear: no matter how our world is forever altered by the pandemic, we cannot let movies this unapologetically massive in scope perish along with movie theaters (should that be their ultimate fate). TENET is undeniably the product of a visionary filmmaker working on the biggest stage, and throwing his blockbuster weight around to get projects made that, auteur brand or not, would be a huge financial risk even in a fully functioning marketplace. Possibly a corny cliche to end on, but movies like TENET are the reason I go to the movies, and I hope the Chris Nolans and Michael Manns of the world continue to find unique avenues to get them made. Because even if you end up hating their almost defiant idiosyncrasies, these guys are gonna make sure you felt something along the way. [70mm]