Playing with time with 'Tenet'

AUGUST 29 — Five months is a pretty long time to finally feel excited about going to the movies again. 

Yes, the cinemas may have reopened in July but this week is the first time that a bona fide Hollywood blockbuster is finally opening not only in Malaysian cinemas, but also in most other countries, since Covid-19.

I may be a pretty hardcore cinephile and genre film fanatic, finding satisfaction not only in plenty of the more cerebral offerings from the arthouse film scene but also in the gory excesses of genre films, but I will also be one of the first people to be excited to watch the latest Hollywood tentpole movies (heck, I’m even excited at the prospect of watching every new Transformers movie), because it’s through watching these movies that one will usually get to experience the full magic of that communal cinema experience  —  sitting in a darkened room full of strangers, all staring at the same screen, enjoying the experience together.

So even if I have been going to the cinemas regularly since they’ve been allowed to reopen, the films that have been on offer so far have not exactly set pulses racing in terms of excitement, as most of them were either horror films, Asian films, or Asian horror films. 

It is only with the arrival of Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bending film Tenet that we finally have a big budget, mass marketed Hollywood offering with the potential to be a big box-office hit on our shores, and it’s starting to look like it’ll be the first of many after this with Mulan and The King’s Man already scheduled to grace our cinema screens in September.

Quite simply the most commercial movie yet in Nolan’s oeuvre (outside of The Dark Knight trilogy, of course), Tenet is more or less his version of the James BondJason Bourne or Mission Impossible films, but spiced up with his usual obsession with time and non-linear narrative. 

At its core, Tenet is simply a movie about a highly-skilled operative recruited by a mysterious agency sent out on a mission, who then realises that the fate of the whole world depends upon it. 

That is basically the plot summary of countless other spy movies out there, whether they’re being made in Hollywood, the UK, Europe, Asia or wherever.

But as you’ve probably read somewhere already, and judging by Nolan’s own track record so far, it’s clear that there’s a bit more to that in Tenet, because, you know, the devil is in the details. 

It’s in the details here that a lot of people have found their heads spinning when trying to make sense of the story. 

While I do not want to spoil your enjoyment of the film, it’s probably safe to say that you’ll understand and enjoy it much better if you pay attention to a few key things.

The key concept here is a technology called “inversion”, which reverses the entropy of people and objects so that they can move backwards through time. 

The second thing that you’ll need to know is the “Algorithm”, which will pop up in the film as part of the evil villain’s masterplan, and what you’ll need to note is that the “Algorithm” is more or less an extension of that “inversion” technology, in that the “Algorithm” reverses the entropy of the Earth (therefore triggering its end) when triggered.

There are plenty of other fun jargon tossed out in it like “temporal pincer movement” and “grandfather complex” but these are more fun to discover and understand for yourself, provided you’ve already wrapped your head around the “inversion” concept. 

My only complaint here is the endless stream of expository dialogue that’s clearly needed to explain this whole “inversion” concept not only to the audience, but also to the movie’s own characters. 

Yes, without them we’d be even more confused, but I just wished that Nolan came up with a better cinematic way to counter that issue instead of just mansplaining the whole thing to the audience.

Even the usual complaints about how “cold” his films can be emotionally are cleverly sidestepped here, because just like the Protagonist (yes, the hero, played by John David Washington, is credited as that in the film, LMAO), the audience is also too busy being bewildered by the crazy things happening (Nolan more or less places the audience exactly in the Protagonist’s shoes), and it’s only towards the end that the Protagonist (and the audience) realises the kind of emotional bond that he has formed with the film’s other characters. 

It’s a very neat screenplay that has cleverly found a way to internalise that whole “inversion” concept into its very fabric, and once you hear that immortal line “See you at the beginning, my friend” spoken, you’ll realise the emotional core of the film has been staring at you the whole time (which is of course what the Protagonist realises as well).

Like most other Nolan films after he gained his commercial clout via The Dark Knight trilogy, Tenet is made to be scrutinised, discussed and dissected by his ardent fans, and will certainly reward a second and third viewing (depending on how deeply you’ve been paying attention), but make no mistake, this one’s a real banger in terms of awesome action set-pieces, from that crazy scheme at the Freeport to that reverse car chase scene to the even more mind blowing army attack at its climax. 

It’s a superb blockbuster disguised as a brainy math test, and I loved every minute of it.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.                                                     

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