I Risked My Life for Tenet

I’ve always been obsessed with movies. My dad tells me that when I was in kindergarten, I used to ask people their favorite movie, and then their favorite movie studio, and offered suggestions if they couldn’t think of one.

The last time I went to a movie theater was March 8th. I saw Emma with Jessie—loved it, exceeded my expectations, just delightful. There was a trailer before it for Tenet, which I had been eagerly anticipating since it was first announced. I always enjoy Christopher Nolan, and Inception is still one of my all-time favorites, and one of the few movies that I can watch over and over and enjoy just as much every time. So I was stoked. Remember that feeling?

Then, the movie theaters closed. And stayed closed. And Tenet got pushed, then pushed again.

I’m glad my state kept the theaters closed this long, but as soon as they opened, I started scheming to see this thing. I hadn’t read any reviews or comments or anything. I wanted to go in completely cold . . . and possibly wearing a hazmat suit.

Stella is my only movie buddy who’s made it into my quarantine pod, but she couldn’t go with me, so I was on my own: “If it’s good I’ll see it again with you at a safe distance,” I texted her. “And by good I mean I don’t die.” 

When I got to the multiplex, there were four other cars in the parking lot. I had my ticket on my phone, and scanned it at a machine behind the roped-off concession stand and roped-off arcade games. There was an employee standing by in case anyone needed help: she hesitantly asked me “Do you want a paper ticket? We’re not tearing them anymore.”

Stella and I used to collect ticket stubs, and save them for years, back when we were in middle school and lived to go to the movies by ourselves every weekend, where we felt so free and mature and empowered to make terrible decisions like buying Slurpees that cost eight dollars and sneaking into R-rated movies that weren’t even that good, and then when we got back to our respective bedrooms we’d put our tickets in a metal tin like it was a sacred memento of a day we’d never forget (to be fair, I never will forget the first time I saw Chicken Run).

There were three other people in the theater. Two of them cheered when I walked in—a man and woman who looked a little younger than my parents. An older lady was sitting a couple of rows behind them.

The man said, “Glad to see someone supporting the movies!” and I gave him an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

The theater was very clean and every other row was roped off—it was a big IMAX auditorium too—and I was glad there were enough people around that it didn’t feel creepy to be alone, but few enough that I didn’t feel unsafe.

The man struck up a conversation with the lady behind him.

“I feel pretty safe!” she said. “I did something more dangerous yesterday! I went on a mushroom hunt!”

“Any edible?”

“I don’t think so. That’s what people care about but I don’t. I just like that they’re pretty and fun.”

Then she read us some headlines out loud from her phone, and I texted Stella, “Okay, the mushroom lady is definitely voting for Biden.”

The lights went down, the sound system kicked in, and I felt that familiar rush of anticipation and excitement. I really missed that.

And then I realized that I’ve been watching movies with closed captioning for the last seven months and this movie? Desperately needed them. Between the blasting sound mix, muffled lines and the fact that nearly every character wears a clunky gas mask at some point, I clearly understood maybe 40% of the dialogue. And my new friends were too far away to ask, “Hey, what did he just say? I think it was important.”

So from the first scene, I felt like I was playing catch-up, and that feeling only escalated over the next 150 minutes. It’s a testament to Nolan’s skill that I always felt confident that at least the director knew what was going on (unlike, say, 90% of the Marvel movies), but there were so many moments that could have been clarified without dumbing it down. But they weren’t, so for the entire movie, I felt like I was being told a story by someone who knew I couldn’t follow it but didn’t care.

It’s a bummer because I love a good mindbender movie, my favorite films are the ones that challenge the ol’ brain work a little harder and even require multiple viewings to fully comprehend, but I need a reason to care about what’s happening first. There’s no ground under my figurative feet otherwise. I don’t even need to root for the characters, just an impetus to invest in them for two hours.

What makes Inception so brilliant is that it successfully balances a character-driven story with a heist story, all nested in a complex speculative universe. You care about this bonkers heist because you care about the characters enough to follow them down multiple rabbit holes, at the same time.

Inception also has great characters, who have distinct motivations and agendas and unique dynamics with each other, all of which shift and grow and reshuffle as the film moves along. And the viewer’s relationship to them changes as well—by the end, you’re rooting for the antagonist to survive and for the mark of the heist to make peace with his father, something you’d never expect at the beginning.

But if those characters feel like fleshed-out human beings (they still have an active fanfic tag after ten years!), the characters in Tenet come across like paper dolls being moved around at someone else’s whim, not their own. Inception also has snappy dialogue and some great exchanges between characters, Tenet has a maybe a handful of memorable lines (or maybe there were more! And I’ll just never know! BECAUSE I COULDN’T UNDERSTAND ANYTHING).

I did enjoy a lot of things that weren’t the characters or the plot: it was lovely to see far-flung locations on the big screen again. Tenet was shot in the UK, Norway, Denmark, Italy and Estonia, so I felt like I was taking a nice European cruise that occasionally detoured through a loud and confusing movie. It was especially nice to see Tallinn, which hasn’t been used for a film location since 1979 (and why not? It’s beautiful and adorable and they have AMAZING cinnamon buns).

John David Washington is so good that you forget that his character description is a sentence. Casting him was the smartest decision Nolan made—even a more seasoned actor who was only a smidgen less compelling to watch would’ve brought the whole thing down around him. The Protagonist spends much of his screentime covered head to toe in tactical gear that obscures his body language and covers everything but his eyes, yet this guy is giving a performance that never feels like he’s performing.

Robert Pattinson was a pleasant surprise—he does “bemused with a secret” very well, and Kenneth “I’m calm now ENRAGED wait I’m calm again FOOLED YOU” Branagh is always a treat.

It was nice to see crowded airports and fancy restaurants and people looking bored on yachts. I tried not to be jealous as I lifted my mask for split-second increments to eat a stale blueberry muffin that I’d shoved in my purse.

I loved the music, which is a palpitating combo of pulsating industrial action rhythms and hundreds of gears screeching at once, a fitting soundtrack to my mental state these days.

And there’s a plot point involving the exact same Fitbit I have! Exciting stuff.

I wish the female characters had been better developed beyond “I’m blonde and I’m worried,” but one of Nolan’s biggest deficits is writing female characters—lest we forgot the single female contribution to Dunkirk, “Would you like some tea, love?” *falls as torpedo hits*

And I’m genuinely baffled that the main character is never named. It’d be one thing if no one had names. But he’s the only one. He even refers to himself as the Protagonist, and no one ever says “Right, but you’re also Steve.” The main character in Dunkirk is never called by his name and he still got to be “Tommy” in the credits. How hard would it have been to name this dude Mike, or John, or Bob? That’s a palindrome! This whole movie has a boner for palindromes!

So I wasn’t blown away. And I really, really wanted to be blown away. I do want to watch Tenet again, with closed captioning and a pause button this time. But was it worth risking a deadly illness? I don’t think so.

But here’s the thing: If I could go back in time and also access an alternate reality (because Nolan drops a few bread crumbs in that direction, DUDE PICK A LANE), where the pandemic never happened and I saw this movie when it was supposed to come out in July with a big bag of popcorn and my friends patiently whispering in response to my frantic elbow shoves when I missed dialogue or couldn’t tell white men apart, and the elevated energy of a packed theater on the edge of their seats, and no expectations other than enjoying giant carbonated drinks and polar-level AC for a few hours—I guarantee I would have come out raving about this movie. Maybe not loving it, I’d still have liked what I liked and disliked what I didn’t, but my expectations wouldn’t have been so elevated by the mental gymnastics required to justify going to a movie theater during a pandemic.

And I wouldn’t have lost sleep later wondering if my headache wasn’t the result of being bombarded with the sounds of explosions and gunshots and planes crashing, but a symptom of something else.

I stayed to watch the credits like I always do. Texted Stella my thoughts (“Christopher Nolan needs to fire his sound mixer”), took note of Estonian names among the crew members (I see you Taavi!) and when I stood up to leave, I was alone. My three companions were long gone. The sun had already set, the sky was grey and clouded over, so I wandered out in semi-darkness and total silence, to an empty parking lot.

And it occurred to me that the hardest thing to believe about Tenet was not inversion or the future declaring war on the present or a man simultaneously fighting his past and future self, but that the end of the world would look like dashing men in suits running around exotic locations confronting complex ethical decisions but ultimately doing the right thing for the people they care about and humanity at large, even when it required self-sacrifice.

The end of the world doesn’t look like that, I thought, as I pulled off my mask, started the car and drove the wrong way out of the empty parking lot. It looks like this.

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