Is seeing Tenet in cinemas worth the coronavirus risk?

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Back in March, as the pandemic shut down the entertainment industry, Christopher Nolan wrote an editorial in The Washington Post eulogising movie theatres. “Maybe, like me, you thought you were going to the movies for surround sound, or Goobers, or soda and popcorn, or movie stars,” he wrote. “But we weren’t. We were there for each other.”
It was a stirring thought influenced by massive financial considerations – Nolan’s $200 million dollar epic, Tenet, was, at that time, slated to be released on July 17. As the pandemic progressed, it would be pushed back to July 31, then held again until August 12. As cinemas pushed back their reopenings to coordinate with this delay, it became clear that this problem cut both ways – cinemas need Nolan as much as he needs cinemas.


Now, finally, Tenet is here, and Nolan offers up a spectacular, extravagant film whose merits depend entirely on moviegoers seeing it on the big screen. You are presented, then, with a grimly modern dilemma – should you risk your safety for the sake of entertainment? The answer to this question will likely depend on just how entertaining you find the films of Christopher Nolan.
Tenet blends the gritty action of contemporary James Bond with a time travelling conceit. We follow “the protagonist”, played by the arresting John David Washington, Denzel Washington’s son, as he tries to stop a Ukranian supervillain (Kenneth Brannagh) committing intergenerational genocide by reversing the flow of time. (Yes, really). A foppish Robert Pattison accompanies the protagonist on his mission – the pair strike up a cute rapport that is sexually charged in a way that the protagonist’s relationship to his love interest, (Elizabeth Debicki), isn’t.
As in Nolan’s previous films, characters spend the beginning zooming busily from place to place, delineating the world’s underlying rules. And like his other films, this quickly spun pseudoscience drives the plot. I found both increasingly impenetrable, an impression Nolan seems to anticipate – one scientist, her lab coat underscoring her authority, makes bullets spring, grasshopper-like, backwards through time. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” she implores.
This command not to think too deeply about the narrative amounts to the film’s motto, which is weird, because Nolan’s fans evidently do want to understand his films – the pages upon pages of Inception theories found online attest to that.


When the protagonist demands a logical explanation for why people from the future might want to kill everyone in the past, Pattison mutters something about grandfather paradoxes, grins, says his head hurts, then falls asleep. How do we interpret this? Might it be that beneath the surface of the thickly plotted narratives through which Nolan tries to express complicated scientific and philosophical concepts, there is really nothing there? Just ideas of ideas, as shallow and ephemerally gratifying as Tenet’s palindrome?
Like Memento, or any number of video games, Nolan seems more interested in time’s effect at a mechanical level – as a conceit that will spectacularly elevate reality. Here, he succeeds marvellously, reinvigorating tired action movie set pieces like heists, car chases and on-the-clock bomb defusal, by running their chronology backwards and forwards. (Feel it, don’t try to understand it.) For good measure, we get another take on Inception’s iconic corridor fights – this time, the reversed protagonist’s bodies contort choppily as they pound on each other; later, we watch it all again in reverse.
The spectacle, then, is the point. Watching a Nolan movie on your laptop is like watching someone else ride a roller coaster; abstractly, you can see why it would be fun, nevertheless, it is not. This is a film best presented in 70mm, at the iMax, the biggest cinema in the UK (™), at a head popping scale of image and sound. And it was moving, just as Nolan described it in his editorial, to be back in the cinema, even this cold new cinema of masks, hand sanitiser and vacant seats. It is so central to social life. The film opens with a crowd attending the theatre – unintentionally its most poignant scene.
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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