**1/2 out of ****
After months of multiple opening date changes due to COVID-19, writer/director Christopher Nolan's latest magnum opus "Tenet" was released last week worldwide. One of a scant few filmmakers (and producers) with the required industry clout to have the final say when (and how) his movies will be released, Nolan insisted "Tenet" would only be available theatrically and he was willing to wait it out.
Resembling a "James Bond" installment on steroids, "Tenet" – on the surface at least – seemed like the perfect choice to entice filmgoers out of their living rooms for the first time since late winter when COVID-19 ground every facet of the entertainment business to a halt.
With the notable exception of his three "Batman" movies (2005, 2008, 2012), Nolan's films are rooted in science-fiction generally and the manipulation of time specifically; but not always time travel. In "Memento" (2000), it was a story told backwards. For "The Prestige" (2006), it was characters being in different places at the same time. The closest Nolan has gotten to "traditional" movie time travel was with both "Inception" (2010) and "Interstellar" (2014). Even Nolan's masterpiece war flick "Dunkirk" (2017) contained three parallel stories taking place over the course of an hour, a day and one week.
Even Nolan's few full-time detractors admit he's conceived of original concepts regarding time and story structure and with "Tenet" he's done it again, but with far less successful results. With a plot so thick and convoluted it will confuse even the most attentive and intelligent of viewers, it is too smart by half and eventually collapses under the weight of excessive bells and whistles and its own, self-imposed Herculean expectations.
For most Nolan devotees, the non-stop action, bone-rattling sound and labyrinthine narrative will be minor distractions and some of them will consider the technical aspects so mind-blowing, they'll have no issues dealing the lack of a solid story, character development and frequently incomprehensible dialogue.
For the average movie fan – such as those who only know Nolan from the "Batman" franchise – the film is less a piece of escapism than it is a brain-numbing homework assignment. It's like driving uphill on a gravel road at night in the rain while attempting to do calculus. It's exciting and stimulating but could also give you a migraine.
On the upside, the performances of the four principals go far in making it through the thicket of sight, sound and preposterously elaborate set pieces. In only his second leading role, John David Washington ("BlacKkKlansman," 2017) plays a character known only as the Protagonist, a spy on a mission assigned to him by the only hinted-at Tenet agency to ostensibly venture into the future to prevent World War III. At various points, Washington sounds exactly like is father Denzel.
Once there ("there" being a multitude of locations in Europe, Asia, and North America), the Protagonist partners with his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), a guy who seems to know more than he should. Their target is the truly twisted Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh in an Oscar-caliber performance), a Russian oligarch with his mitts in everything. Andrei is married to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a British art expert who wants out of the abusive coupling but stays in it so he won't block her from seeing their son.
The first weekend box office take for "Tenet" might just be the most important dollar figure in the history of movies and will likely influence not only the short-term plans of other films but the future of the entire industry. The studio was expecting it to do about $20 million domestically and as of Sunday night, it had taken in $20.2 million from about 2,800 theaters. Not great in normal circumstances but in these pandemic times where most chains were limited to 40% capacity and skittish audiences, that's pretty good news.
Add to this an international haul of over $146.2 million so far and "Tenet" has already made back close to half of its production budget. (It's worth noting that all theaters in the Top 10 markets of New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco remained boarded-up last week. Who knows how much more the movie could have taken in with the addition of these cities.)
It also didn't help matters when multitudes of film critics across the country flat-out declined invitations to advance press screenings and many others who gave the film mixed-to-good reviews also recommended that their readers stay at home. Other entertainment outlets refused to run reviews.
Even with its technical overkill and relatively weak (by Nolan's high standards) screenwriting, "Tenet" is a larger-than-life audio/visual experience interested viewers can only have at brick and mortar theaters (see it in the IMAX format if you can.)
Given the fact that the next big theater-only title ("Wonder Woman 1984") won't be out until October 2 and few if any fans can attend either college or professional sporting events, "Tenet" will, in effect, have not one but four opening weekends without any major competition.
Nolan has accomplished a great deal over the last two decades. He's blurred the lines between art-house and blockbuster without sacrificing the blueprints of either, and has done so on his own terms. He's perhaps the only living filmmaker to value creativity and commerce with equal measure. He might also go down in history as the person who stuck to his principals in order to save the medium he loves.
The battle of "The Alamo" was referenced in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) as being the last wall preventing total defeat. Nolan and "Tenet" are now the Alamo for movie theaters.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here."
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