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Blu-ray Review: Tenet

December 16, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

If things were different in the world right now, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which is being released on Blu-ray this week, would have been one of the biggest blockbusters of the summer movie season.

Instead, a global pandemic got in the way, and the British filmmaker’s latest high concept movie, which has been feverishly anticipated by his legions of fans since it was first announced, got pushed from its prime July release date to the very end of the summer.

Despite many theatres remaining closed, (with numerous films either being pushed to next year or bypassing theatres entirely and going straight to VOD), Nolan was steadfast in wanting his film to be seen on the big screen, hoping that it could help reinvigorate a dried up theatrical market.

Warner Bros. reluctantly agreed, and theatres made the effort to ensure that enhanced cleaning efforts and social distancing measures would be in place for its release. Ironically, though, Nolan’s insistence that his film be shown in theatres forced many of them to reopen prematurely, which arguably hurt them more. With limits on crowd sizes, and many people not feeling ready to return, they weren’t really able to recoup their operating costs, and the big budget film ended up bringing in far less at the box office than it needed to break even (though it’s still one of the highest grossing films of the year).

Now Warner Bros. has sent shockwaves through the industry by deciding to release the entirety of their 2021 slate direct to streaming, drawing the ire of Nolan and other filmmakers. I wish this wasn’t the conversation we were having about Nolan’s latest, which is a very good film in its own right, but it is indelibly linked to any discussion about the movie itself. I was lucky enough to see Tenet in IMAX at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto when theatres were briefly reopened in September, (before the province of Ontario made the arbitrary decision to close them again, despite no real evidence linking cases of the virus to cinemas), and it’s hard to imagine much topping this experience.

Nolan’s film is a head-spinning espionage thriller, which excites on a temporal level, while delivering sequences of awesome, eye-popping action. Ludwig Goranson’s musical score is exceptional, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s 70mm cinematography is great. The film looked especially amazing in IMAX, complete with changing aspect ratios to fill the screen from top to bottom (which is replicated on the Blu-ray). In short, it’s a film that was made to be seen on a gigantic screen with a booming sound system. While the experience of watching it at home is obviously a different one, this is how many will finally experience it, and the technical merits are still undeniably strong no matter what size the screen.

Without giving too much away, Tenet follows a CIA agent known simply as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who is hired to stop a cataclysmic global event, given only the palindromic word “Tenet” to guide him. He is assigned a handler named Neil (Robert Pattinson), and tasked with taking down a Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Getting to Sator means going through a tangled a web that involves Sator’s wife (Elizabeth Debicki) and an arms dealer (Dimple Kapadia) in India. The key element of the plot is the idea of time inversion, a way to reverse the entropy of an object or person so that it travels backwards through a forward-moving timeline.

Many of Nolan’s films deal with time on a thematic level, starting with the director’s breakout film Memento, which was told backwards, starting at the end and working towards the beginning. Even his previous movie, the World War II epic Dunkirk, which seemed like somewhat of a dramatic departure, was ingeniously structured to unfold on three separate timelines. Now Tenet takes these themes to their logical conclusions. It’s literally a movie about time, how we perceive its passage, and the inversion of our forward moving perception of it. 

This is all to say that Tenet is a very Christopher Nolan movie. The most obvious comparison to it would be the filmmaker’s own Inception from a decade ago, though there are shades of his divisive Interstellar as well. Those of us that enjoy Nolan’s usual mix of heady, high concept ideas and incredibly well staged action sequences will probably find a lot to like here. And those who generally find his movies to be more style over substance, offering interesting ideas in lieu of stronger character development or emotional involvement, will probably feel the same way about this one.

This is not to say that the characters are completely fleshed out in Tenet. The main character doesn’t even have a name and is literally called The Protagonist, but this is clearly an intentional choice. Early on, we are told by a scientist (Clémence Poésy) explaining the concept of time inversion and “catching” backwards-firing bullets, not to overthink things and to merely “feel” them instead, and that was sort of how I watched the movie. I was entertained by it. The story is complicated, yes, but it’s propelled by an internal logic that allows us to mostly follow what’s going on while watching it.

This is a massive film, shot on location in seven different countries around the world, with practical effects whenever possible. The action sequences are exciting and inventive, starting with the thrilling takeover of an opera house in Ukraine in the opening sequence. Other highlights include an incredible backwards car chase involving some action with a firetruck, and a suspenseful finale with elements moving in both directions. The acting is also solid, including a smooth leading man performance by Washington, and an appealing supporting turn from a blonde-haired Pattinson, who is cool here in a way that I’ve never really seen him before.

Is Tenet a cinema-saving masterpiece? I would say no, and it had the undue pressure of needing to be one. But it is a damn fine popcorn movie, and one that I wish more people had gotten to experience in a proper theatre, the way Nolan intended it to be seen. With that said, watching it at home will have to do for many viewers, and is still an experience that I would heartily recommend.

Bonus Features (Blu-ray):

The three-disc set comes with an extra Blu-ray disc devoted to bonus features, as well as a regular DVD of the film. A code for a digital copy is also included in the package, which comes with a slipcover.

Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of Tenet (1 hour, 15 minutes, 22 seconds): This feature length “making of” documentary, which is broken up into thirteen chapters, explores many aspects of the production; from the physics of the plot, to the characters, performances, cinematography, production design, special effects, costumes, editing and score. The logistics of the backwards-forwards action choreography is also discussed. It’s an informative and thorough look at the level of planning and craft that went into the film.

I. The Principle of Belief (4 minutes, 6 seconds)

II. Mobilizing the Troupe (6 minutes, 34 seconds)

III. The Approach (4 minutes, 4 seconds)

IV. The Proving Window (4 minutes, 45 seconds)

V. The Roadmap (5 minutes, 5 seconds)

VI. Entropy in Action (10 minutes, 47 seconds)

VII. Traversing the Globe (12 minutes, 27 seconds)

VIII. How Big a Plane? (4 minutes, 47 seconds)

IX. The Dress Code (3 minutes, 51 seconds)

X. Constructing the Twilight World (5 minutes, 26 seconds)

XI. The Final Battle (4 minutes, 10 seconds)

XII. Cohesion (5 minutes, 37 seconds)

XIII. Doesn’t Us Being Here Now Mean It Never Happened? (3 minutes, 48 seconds)

Trailers (9 minutes, 41 seconds)

Teaser (1 minute, 12 seconds)

Trailer 2 (2 minutes, 16 seconds)

Trailer 3 (3 minutes, 0 seconds)

Trailer 4 (3 minutes, 13 seconds)

Tenet is a Warner Bros. Home Entertainment release. It’s 151 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: December 15th, 2020

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