by Tom George Hammond
The director Andrew Davis, best known for Under Siege and The Fugitive – two of the most enjoyable and well-made action films of the ‘90s – was asked in 2013 about why certain, mid budget, adult orientated blockbusters do not seem to get made anymore. His answer; “We’ve gotten into the world of eye candy and into the world where if it doesn’t have tons of eye candy where a 22-year-old in some other country can just enjoy watching it, then they hardly get made”. It is a valid criticism of the current Marvel film, as an example, where the plot feels rather decorative- obviously they spell out why Captain Someone must go and investigate a rare metal at a factory somewhere, but if you don’t catch the exposition you can still be entertained by the next fight scene. Even something like Birds of Prey: Or A Rather Overwritten Subtitle, which was made to seem like an edgier, swearier alternative to the standard Marvel fare, is still kitted out with a rudimentary plot that one can easily tune out of – everyone wants a diamond, essentially, and Ewan McGregor is unpleasant. You are not supposed to tune out of a Christopher Nolan film. They are complex mechanisms, Rube Godlberg-esque, where everything ties into everything else. I remember watching Inception, ten years ago now, and feeling in awe of its construction; it felt exhilaratingly clever and completely electric, and at the time I thought I was witnessing the peak of cinema (I was, to clarify, fourteen years old). I wonder now what my fourteen-year-old self would have made of Tenet. Whenever an adult, like Charlie Brooker, said that Inception was too confusing, I wanted to shake them and call them a moron. “It’s actually very easy, they say every time they’re going into a dream, and there are only three dreams, you idiot”. Now I need to see complex charts to understand exactly what moments of Tenet were happening in real or inverted time- if that is in fact the correct terminology.
Of course, Tenet has had a terrible time getting to the cinema. It is a wounded and mistreated animal. It was supposed to cause the same shockwaves as Inception, being the new intelligent blockbuster, the antidote to the Merry-go-round of the Avengers, the film where thrills are equally weighted with ideas. And then it was the film that might never come out, or the film that would accompany the vaccine; we would only get to see Tenet if we managed to save the world. And now finally it arrives, like a toe being dipped into a swimming pool, the whole film industry watching it glimmer onto cinema screens. If it takes money then there will be more films. If it doesn’t, everything will be delayed or diverted onto random streaming services. It’s a litmus test for all blockbusters, a genre that has been dying and thriving for years.
The start time was 3:30pm but my friend and I wandered in at 4. I was expecting a half hour of advertising, having forgotten that there currently is not very much to advertise. Instead the film had already started, and Clemence Poesy was telling John David Washington to catch a bullet in his gun. We had been at the bar, and I had drunk a bit of white wine and was having difficulty grasping the concept of “reverse entropy”. I tried to gain some sense of clarity, but watching Tenet was like jumping onto a spooked horse; by the end of it, I was not even sure where Robert Pattinson was supposed to be from – was he an aristocratic, throaty James Mason type, or a trans-Atlantic jack-the-lad bred in the East End? – let alone how any of the machinations of time travel worked. Every scene felt sped up. It was like watching an orchestra play a fugue in double time, and yet it was also extremely long. I still don’t know what happened in the film, and I’ve read six articles in The Independent that try to explain it. It now feels like a fever dream.
I remember Michael Caine most clearly – he was playing a character called Sir Michael Crosby and, when his brief scene is done, the Protagonist said; “Thanks, Sir Michael”, which insinuated that the actor was delivering his final curtain call. I also remember reeling from seeing another scene in a film where an actor sits down for lunch with another character, who has already ordered (when do people ever do this?), and then orders something themselves, and then leaves before/when the food arrives (why do they do this in films? Why write the characters having lunch or dinner if they’re not actually going to eat? Why not just write the meetings over a coffee or a glass of wine?). Sir Michael is supposedly there to brief the Protagonist, but – typically for a briefing scene in a spy film – the two characters seem to be equally informed on the subject. So they’re not really having lunch, and not really talking, just lobbing information at each other as if they’re playing squash.
I remember Kenneth Branagh too, playing a dry Russian with sad eyes. He really is the best person to hire if you need someone to play a Russian villain and cannot find an actual Russian. He and Elizabeth Debicki really commit to the film, and of the selling of their characters’ terrible relationship. Debicki’s character in The Night Manager was also the morally decent wife of an arms dealer – not often a niche a performer gets to revisit – and the actor brings the same composed, ambivalent, cutglass energy to Tenet. Both actors are accomplished genre players, playing characters straight out of a Bond film. Nolan is continually linked with Bond, but while Inception felt like an enhanced version of the franchise, Tenet felt like a series of Bond scenes spliced up in a Magimix. The Roger Moore Bond films were loosely plotted travelogues where the ageing playboy has to seek a random widget or McGuffin to prevent someone escalating the Cold War. (My favourite of these inventions is the “solar agitator” in The Man with the Golden Gun, which is stolen by the world’s greatest assassin in order to create a global bidding war for a monopoly on solar power. He also has a solar powered laser). Tenet also hops around the world, but it is a joyless travelogue, as if we are following a businessperson going to a thousand conferences. Blearily we watch the Protagonist go from Oslo to the Amalfi Coast, to Talinn, to Mumbai; there is no pleasure to the travel, only new places for the actors to stand and talk. It has its own shelf of McGuffins – the titular object, the “turnstiles”, the “detritus from a future war” – that it presents with brusque information and without any mirth. “Don’t try to understand it”, Clemence Poesy says, and I made the mistake of heeding her suggestion.
What I cannot remember from the film, despite searching for it every scene, is any moment in which the film achieved some moment of pure, undiluted spectacle; the sort of moment that Nolan trades in, even in his lesser works. A decade on from Inception’s release, some of its narrative elements feel decidedly less shrewd than they did when I was a young teenager – it is a film where your subconscious can have armed security, the sort of twist you’d find in a Paul Verhoeven satire – but the fight sequence in the revolving corridor, shot entirely with practical effects, remains as enthralling as it was on first viewing. Interstellar is a wondrous, limping mess, but the moment in which the pilot drives away from his family home, interplayed with the sound of a spacecraft being launched, has been embedded in the memory; it’s a dance of sound and vision, the kind that only plays properly in a cinema, where you can be dwarfed by the beauty of the screen. Those moments are not “eye candy”, in the words of Andrew Davis, they are not light confectionary, they are moments of genuine visual wonder, for which cinema is designed for. It struck me suddenly during Tenet that I found the action of the film simply unengaging. The sound is poorly mixed, and the dialogue is stilted or positively byzantine when you can hear it, but I was genuinely quite willing to set aside those qualms for the thrill of the spectacle. But the film is so soaked in needless complexity, it began to seep into the visual language. The finale, in particular, was just a medley of gunshots and explosions and noise, that sagged in its betrayal of lucidity.
As the film ended and the audience shuffled out, a more melancholic thought occurred; I had forgotten how full the screening was. We had all sat there so silently. This was not like Cats, where you could sense the confusion, repulsion and camp adoration wash over the audience in various mumbles and guffaws. Everyone just sat still and then politely left like the screen had never been turned on. I could see, through a window, linked by a turnstile, my fourteen-year-old self, watching the Inception credits at the same cinema, wanting to see the whole thing again. My non-inverted self got up and left, feeling reminded that when watching something unengaging, it does not matter where they are; they will always feel slightly alone.