Tenet ★★★★★

2020 movie viewings, #171 (spoiler-free). So before anything else, let me mention that I very proudly torrented a pirated copy of this movie, and that I don't particularly give a fuck if anyone in the movie industry finds out; in fact, I'm mentioning it publicly in the specific hopes that the news does get back to the sociopaths running Warner. If there's one thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear, it's that the main "value" of the increasingly outrageous movie ticket prices we've been paying in recent years is the value of actually leaving our house, the value of actually going somewhere special to do something special, and that without this the value of the movie itself plummets to almost nothing, as the tens of thousands of older movies that can be watched online completely for free right now attest. It was bad enough when spoiled crybaby Christopher Nolan spent six months whining about how we should be happy to kill Grandma so that he can have dictatorial control over who and how and where and when us mouthbreathers get to be deigned the privilege of watching his precious little movie; but I just lost my shit when the studio's response was, "Chris, baby, relax! We'll make it all back afterwards by charging people twenty bucks to watch a video file on their laptops!"

[[:::rant begins:::]] Let's be clear -- I am not going to, nor will I ever, spend twenty dollars to watch a video file on my fucking laptop; and so if the criminally overpaid piece-of-shit executives at these studios can't manage to charge a reasonable amount, then these criminally overpaid piece-of-shit executives at these studios will in fact not get a single goddamned dime from me at all. And if that's the case, I will happily spend the entire rest of my life downloading pirated copies of their movies anytime I want to watch one, doing so through free WiFi networks at public cafes and then throwing them immediately away when done so that I'll never be caught with the evidence, and saving my going-out money for live concerts, dance recitals, drinks with my friends and all kinds of other activities that are more worth my money than that. [[:::rant completed:::]]

Okay, so on with the movie! Like all of Nolan's films, I've spend the last year of my life very carefully avoiding any reviews of Tenet, any interviews with the cast and crew, or even watching the trailer, because we all know by now that the best Nolan experiences are the ones where we know absolutely nothing going into them. Was this to be another emotionally moving head-scratcher like Inception? Was it to be another piece of overly sentimental, sloppy nonsense like Interstellar? Now that I've seen it, I realize it's neither; Nolan has in fact made another Batman Begins here, a thrilling rollercoaster of a genre exercise that has no bigger aim than to be a thrilling rollercoaster of a genre exercise, two and a half hours of explosions and "ah-hah" moments designed for no other purpose than to make you walk away from the film pumping your fist in the air and screaming "OH MY FREAKING GOD THAT FREAKING MOVIE MAN."

Despite its reputation, the concept behind the movie itself is actually super-easy to understand. Recruited out of the CIA because of his demonstrated willingness to kill himself rather than give up his comrades, our unnamed hero (referred to in the script only as "The Protagonist," shortened in my review to P.) is informed that humanity is currently in the middle of a secret temporal cold war, initiated by unknown actors in the future who have discovered a way to reverse the flow of time at the same exact speed as we usually perceive time going forward (the explanation behind the McGuffin entirely blown off other than a few vague references to "quantum physics," which is the grown-up way of saying "Hogwarts magic shit"). Now that this super-secret spy agency knows what to look for, they're finding more and more evidence of an apocalyptic event by their unknown enemies that happens in our future but has left detritus in our past; and so is our Black James Bond the newest recruit to be tasked with the seemingly impossible job of figuring out what's going on, who's doing it, and how to stop it.

That's it, that's the story; and anything else that may come off as confusing here is done merely in the service of the convoluted actioner plot about stopping this temporal war (with Nolan as always ably helped by his brother, "plot whisperer" Jonathan Nolan), but with Nolan making it clear that we should otherwise trust that everything we're seeing on the screen is real and should be accepted at face value. That's why I say that Tenet is much more like Batman Begins than Inception, because one of the major questions of Inception is whether we can even trust anything we're actually seeing in the first place, which then makes that a much more complicated yet emotionally satisfying story than the relatively straightforward (pun intended) spy thriller seen here. As I said in my most recent write-up on the subject, my fourth watch of Inception last year left me convinced that in fact not a single thing we see on the screen in that movie is real, but rather is entirely a manipulative inception dream inside the head of Leonardo DiCaprio's character, who in "real life" isn't an inception specialist at all, but rather just a normal guy dysfunctionally grieving over the recent suicide of his wife. And he's being treated for it by Ellen Page's character, who in "real life" is not DiCaprio's assistant but rather his inception-specialist therapist, using the five-level convoluted dream layer cake solely for the purpose of DiCaprio finally understanding at a deeply subconscious level that the death of his wife was not his fault.

When seen that way, that makes Inception not just a clever genre actioner but an emotionally devastating story about loss and grief as well; but while Tenet certainly has its emotionally moving moments (such as when we finally learn why this temporal cold war has come about in the first place, for one great example), these emotionally moving moments aren't integral to the story in the way they are in Inception, nor are we meant to spend our time confusingly pondering whether there's actually something much deeper and even more secret going on in front of us the whole time. We learn definitively by the end that there's not; but like Batman Begins, that doesn't necessarily make it a worser movie, and in some ways assures that it's an even purer audience pleaser than more emotionally moving titles like Inception. In fact, about the only thing here I can even think about maybe taking a half-star off for is the distractingly awful accent by Kenneth Branagh as our mad Russian arms-dealer villain, who belts it to the back row with more scenery-chewing gusto than anyone since...well, John Malkovich belting his own distractingly awful Russian accent to the back row in Rounders. (Also, Nolan is probably the only person in Hollywood who can take a "diversity quota mandate," like all the major Hollywood studios currently have, to turn Black actor John David Washington into the most lily-white Nolanesque stick-up-his-ass bespoke-suit-wearing hero in the history of lily-white Nolanesque stick-up-their-asses bespoke-wearing heroes, yet be cheered by his audience for it instead of chased out of town with pitchforks.)

Now, was Tenet worth killing Grandma for? Most definitively not, which is one of those things Nolan will either eventually come to learn himself, or will spend the rest of his life futilely beating his head against the wall about; that as good as this was (and trashing a real-life, full-sized jumbo jet, merely for the sake of a single shot, is pretty freaking good), I enjoyed this exactly no more and exactly no less than Anna Taylor-Joy as a pill-popping freak earlier this year in The Queen's Gambit, and all those people needed to pull off their Nolan-tying entertainment was a pretty dress and a two-dollar chess board. Nolan is lucky to have a successful career as an artist at all, given how many millions of people dream about doing so and how many tens of thousands try and fail each year; so maybe he will come to eventually realize that it's the storytelling that's most important here, and not whether the angwy widdle baby gets to force all his fans to spend 75 dollars to be strapped to a hydraulic chair inside a planet-sized Dyson sphere as the one and only way to watch His Precious. As kick-ass as this is, I can always go straight back to the pill-popping chess freaks tomorrow if Nolan wants to make too big a to-do about how his farts all smell like wildflowers; and he'll either eventually understand this himself, or his film career will come to an unceremonial end. It'll be interesting to see which one it will be in the coming years, especially given the John Galt-esque early-retirement screeds he's already started pronouncing at the idea of his future movies being simultaneously released to theaters and streaming at the same time.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews