Tenet May Not Be the Saviour of Cinema – and That’s Okay

Following Mark Conroy’s review of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet for HeadStuff, co-film editor Stephen Porzio discusses the film’s place in the current cinema landscape.

Has there ever been more of a burden hoisted upon a film than Tenet?

Yes, partly this weight was self-imposed. If a filmmaker makes a sci-fi spy blockbuster costing over $200 million before marketing, of course the intention is to make something that will appeal to a broad audience in order to turn a profit.

However, Tenet is coming hot on the heels of a string of blockbuster hits for its writer-director Christopher Nolan and a summer where cinemas around the world have had to shut their doors due to Covid. Suddenly Tenet has gone from being something highly anticipated to being thought of as the film that will re-start the traditional method of movie exhibition.

Having seen the film, I’m not sure Tenet is quite that. Yes, it bears many of the hallmarks of other Nolan hits. It features movie stars, glamorous locations, jaw-dropping visuals and stunts and that special type of quasi time-related science that inspired hundreds of online fan-theories and breakdowns for Inception and Interstellar.

Yet, it’s also stripped-back in terms of its characters – its central hero is literally named Protagonist. The atmosphere is a tad icier than a typical modern blockbuster. Its central stakes are murkier than any of Nolan’s previous films.

It is also very confusing, with those moments of exposition that helped audiences buy Inception’s similarly convoluted premise in shorter supply. And when they are there, they are either delivered in muffled tones – due to the plot – under a mask. Or they are drowned out by overwhelming, immersive sound design – the drone of a ferry or the roar of a speed boat.

I enjoyed Tenet – I found the performances strong across the board and the action sequences thrilling. The moments when the palindromic plot unveils itself and the pieces of its puzzle slide into each other felt incredibly satisfying to me.

But for the most part, I liked Tenet not because it is something I’d encourage my friends and family to watch. I appreciate it as an artistic and ambitious attempt by an idiosyncratic filmmaker to put what concerns them and has been bouncing around in their head onscreen. Even in his Tenet screenplay, Nolan tells his audience how to watch the movie – with a character stating: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

In that respect, Tenet reminded me of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice or other polarising movies by auteurs that pushed their cinematic obsessions into a new place. A space that is fascinating to dissect and revisit but difficult for a mainstream audience looking for just a night’s entertainment to get behind.

And I believe that’s okay. Mainstream cinema needs big swings like Tenet to continue to grow. Without them, there would be no Mad Max: Fury Road or The Matrix and Hollywood movies would just be the same thing churned out again and again.

One film won’t save cinema. And for those who long for a more traditional night’s entertainment, there will be more superhero films, more of the Fast and Furious franchise, more Mark Walhberg action movies – once Covid-19 is better suppressed globally. Those who like movies want to return to theatres but when the time is right. And those who love them have probably already ventured back to check out the smaller indie flicks currently in Irish cinemas. After all, Tenet is not the only movie out…

Tenet is out Wednesday, August 26 in Irish cinemas.

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