“Tenet” draws film fans back to theater

Tucker Allen, Contributing Writer

broad theater sign
The Broad Theater is currently open for small, socially distant movie showings. (Tucker Allen)

Christopher Nolan’s latest film “Tenet” (2020) is a gratifying experience on an aesthetic and technical level, which fans have come to expect from the director, now tasked with reviving theater attendance in an industry severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nolan is the mind behind “The Dark Knight” trilogy and is known for his often cerebral and innovative takes on time-oriented plots, such as “Inception” (2010) and “Interstellar” (2014). Few directors have been known to attract such large audiences for original and thought-provoking films or secure the backing of large studios to produce such bold films.

Like the tasks posed to the film’s heroes, the goal of bringing audiences back into theaters is no easy one. This year has been difficult for many industries and beneficial for few. Movie theaters that were already experiencing a decline in attendance pre-pandemic have found themselves troubled by virtually six months of limited or no audiences, while streaming services have enjoyed a rise in viewership.

Like the caped crusader that he directed just a few years ago, Nolan has directed a film that proves he is the hero cinema deserves, but maybe not the one it needs right now, especially considering the legitimate concerns many people have around returning to theaters. For the first time in over six months, I returned to the Broad Theater with a small and socially distanced audience.

At its best, “Tenet” will remind audiences long deprived of the theatre-going experience just how uniquely transient the cinema can be. The story is led by actor John David Washington, who plays a nameless character simply known as the “Protagonist.” After an undercover CIA operation gone wrong, he finds himself the member of an exclusive organization known  as “Tenet,” which is tasked with ensuring the survival of humanity amid emerging threats of global proportion around a new time-twisting technology known as “inversion.”

Alongside a riveting performance from Washington, the film also stars Robert Pattinson as Neil, Elizabeth Debicki as Kat and Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator. Capturing expansive landscapes with a combination of 70mm and IMAX cameras, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who also worked on “Dunkirk” (2017) and “Interstellar,” returns to collaborate with Nolan. Everything about the rich visuals of “Tenet” is big. The most beautiful images of the movie come in the sprawling wind farms outside of Denmark, to the busy streets and illumination of the nights in India’s most populous city, to the paradise of late summertime in coastal Ravello, Italy.

Legendary composer and frequent partner of Nolan, Hans Zimmer, who worked on “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “Interstellar,” was notably absent from the film, as Zimmer was busy with his work on the upcoming Denis Villeneuve adaptation of “Dune.” Instead the film had an electric score from Ludwig Göransson. For anyone worried about the Nolan-Zimmer departure, fear not. Known for his work as a producer with Childish Gambino and as an Oscar/Grammy Award winning soundtrack for “Black Panther” (2018), in “Tenet,” Göransson synthesizes a mesmerizing, drum-heavy experience that compliments — and at times even fuels — the intensity of this notably faster-paced film compared to what we have seen before from Nolan.

Much of the film’s dialogue was overwhelmed by its sound mixing and soundtrack, making already difficult concepts to portray on screen that much harder to grasp. So, if you were wondering like I was, you probably don’t need to get your ears checked. There is an unfortunate lack of character development amongst this star-studded cast, and the limited emotional payoff found in “Tenet” is in the bond developed by the characters of the Protagonist and Neil. Elizabeth Debicki as the cornered wife to Sator also brings some needed layers of dramatic depth to the film.

These issues can be overlooked, and “Tenet” is an admirable achievement that can offer audiences who feel comfortable with returning to theaters an entertaining, novel take on the familiar “save the world” concept.