So much weight has been placed on Christopher Nolan's newest film Tenet that it almost isn't fair. In a typical 2020, it would've been just another blockbuster set amongst half a dozen others. But 2020 is anything but normal, and with movie theaters closed for months, the expectations that Tenet will bring people back to the theaters is astronomical.
It's also horribly irresponsible. While the risks may be lower in other countries where COVID-19 has been better controlled, in the US, we have this weird counter-intuitive response: places where the novel virus has been relatively well-contained like NYC, will not open their movie theaters. Places like my home in Texas, where we're still battling an outbreak, theaters are opening up. And the very places that should be keeping theaters closed is exactly where they will open up because we're governed by idiots and sociopaths. Now we even have the White House arguing for a strategy of "herd immunity." This is a recipe for absolute disaster, especially opening movie theaters now. People will get sick. They will spread this virus around, and our lives will continue to be quarantined because people can't keep themselves at home, and they demand to go to the movies.
I'm very sad to report that Tenet just isn't worth it. It is simultaneously both the strongest argument for why you really should see a movie in a theater and why you should maybe watch this one at home. First, the good: Nolan's visual style continues to be in a rare class with only a few others. He uses the IMAX format and big theater sound system to full effect. The opening scene's gunshots and explosions had my plush leather recliner shaking as I felt the reverberations deep in my chest of that booming bass sound. Michael Bay can eat his heart out as Nolan delivers spectacle but also marries it with something Bay never could: a complex plot, superb acting, and a heady premise.
It's also over torqued, overwrought, and overlong. It's indulgent filmmaking at its finest (but it's still indulgent) as Nolan continues to cash blank checks from his previous successes. And rightfully so– I'm still a giant fan of the first two of his Batman films, The Prestige, Inception, and Memento. And this film is like Memento in so many respects, as our founder Rich rightfully points out in his review. It's also completely not because Memento worked because of its relative minimalism. Tenet is Nolan at his most maximalist. So in many senses, this film insists it be seen on a giant screen with giant speakers booming its cacophonous industrial "score" at you.
And Nolan seems to have learned an important lesson listening to his critics from Dunkirk of telling a story that is exclusively white and male. Nolan could've easily cast Christian Bale or any of his other previous collaborators in the lead role, but opted for John David Washington instead, alongside what is a fairly diverse main cast. Major kudos to Nolan for this. Robert Pattinson also does a great job, hopefully allaying any lingering fears people have about him in the upcoming Matt Reeves The Batman. But there's also no reason this cast needs to be seen in a theater.
But while he may have heard his critics on Dunkirk, where Nolan didn't learn his lesson is from the third Batman film. Remember all the complaints about not being able to understand the dialogue? Well, they're going to be back. This film, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, could improve with the use of subtitles so we can at least try to follow along with the dialogue and plot. So many characters are masked, muffled, or otherwise have their mouths covered. And their voices all sound like they're coming through Bane's mask in The Dark Knight Rises. "I am Christopher Nolan's sound design reckoning." It makes a "difficult to follow" plot even more (literally) incoherent.
This movie will also be vastly improved with the ability to pause, rewind, and process. Some things move so incredibly fast that they deserve a moment to breathe. And given its two and a half hour runtime, this will be aided by the ability to get a drink, walk around and stretch a little bit, go to the bathroom, and so on. I also immediately want to go back and watch things again that I think I picked up earlier but wanted to make sure I was clear.
And then there's the mask. It's hot. It's itchy. It's also 100% necessary to wear in a theater among strangers. While our screening was only for a handful of film critics from the Austin area and so we're therefore very spread out in a large theater, I was taken aback when one of them asked if they could take their mask off during the movie if they weren't sitting near anyone. No. No, you can't. Because that not how any of this works. The viewing experience would certainly be better sitting at home, not worrying about my mask, meanwhile also wondering if this certain person was going to take theirs off in the dark when no one was looking.
All in all, the best thing I can say about Tenet is that you're really going to love it when you can watch it at home. I also look forward to the day when we can have exclusive IMAX screenings of it next summer or sometime in the future in a post-COVID world. But between the mask, the anxiety about the mask, and the particulars of this film itself, it's simply better to watch at home.
Which is all a shame, but 2020 is certainly the year we can't have nice things. One of those nice things is being able to see great movies built to be seen on a giant screen with a communal audience experience. It's unfortunate that whatever happens this week with the box office, people are going to spread ridiculous hot takes about "the death of movie theaters" or "How Tenet saved movies." But Tenet isn't coming to save cinema. It can't possibly with the deck so stacked against it. But ultimately, it's also just not worth the risk when watching it at home is arguably the better way to experience this film.