Filmmaking always comes with risk. For producers, it’s financial. For actors and directors, it’s reputational. And for stunt performers, it can be a matter of life and death. That’s where you come in: your job is to literally put a price on people’s safety. For years, that’s been your job on Hollywood’s biggest films. But with Tenet, it’s our turn to weigh in.
We’re all risk managers, now.
In the summer of 2020, going to see Christopher Nolan’s latest spectacle in a theatre feels like a political statement. It’s either selfish or supportive, dangerous or defiant (and largely dependent on where you live and how you’ve been affected by the pandemic). You and I could go on about the complex personal calculus that goes into each individual’s decision, but, suffice to say, I decided to go. Opening night. And even before star ratings or philosophical musings about the complex plot, most people just want to know one simple thing:
Was it worth it?
Except that question is more loaded than people think, isn’t it? Was it entertaining, high-minded, and a visual spectacle worthy of the big screen? Hell yeah. Did I feel safe in the theatre? Yes. Was it actually safe in the theatre? Probably. If it wasn’t safe, and I caught COVID-19, then will it have been worth it? Obviously not. But big theatrical movies don’t get made – or in today’s world, seen – without someone being willing to absorb a little risk.
Nolan, ironically, might be one of the safest bets left in Hollywood. No other director in the past 20 years has received such consistent critical and financial rewards for his efforts. Not only does his time-manipulating storytelling challenge niche and mainstream audiences alike, but his insistence on large format cameras and exhibition modes have almost single-handedly kept the spectacle of cinema differentiated from the small-scale spectacle of television. But that’s geek stuff.
What really matters in a review of Tenet is not whether or not I felt safe from a virus, but whether or not I felt safe in the hands of a filmmaker who was going to challenge me and risk leaving me lost along the way. And, maybe for the very first time, I truly surrendered myself to Nolan’s particular mode of storytelling and allowed myself to feel the film rather than puzzle it together.
There’s a line of dialogue early in the film that encourages The Protagonist (yes, that’s the character’s actual name) to do the same thing. It was a knowing moment from a filmmaker who is much more comfortable getting into a staring contest with the audience rather than ever winking at us. Knowing that that’s his brand goes a long way. Especially when you start seeing bullet holes disappearing on screen during a heist. Rather than my brain jumping into “what the hell?” mode, I got a dopamine rush of “here we go!” Such are the pleasures of avoiding all trailers and advance reviews and doing my own movie-watching risk assessment. During the Normal Times, anyway.
I have to admit the experience felt heightened. The same way one’s frustration might be exacerbated if they show up to a Christopher Nolan film expecting to find a convincing romantic subplot, ironic witticisms, or audible dialogue. You need to know what you’re getting into. Now more than ever. Between inverted timelines, huge set pieces, and propulsive momentum, Tenet is the most Nolan that Nolan has ever Nolaned. Enjoy accordingly.