Tenet: Backward bullets and twisted time, but can Christopher Nolan save cinema?

August 24, 2020

"You probably haven't been to the cinema in a long time… There's no better place to come back to."

Optimistic words of welcome, tentatively delivered to me and 49 other journalists as we took our socially-distanced seats at BFI Odeon IMAX's preview screening of Christopher Nolan's spy extravaganza Tenet.

"A long time" is no understatement - it's been five months since most people stepped inside a viewing theatre. For an arts and entertainment journalist, it seems like a lifetime.

Hailed as event cinema - or a "sci-fi action spectacle" in Nolan's own words - it's been long awaited and pushed back several times due to coronavirus.

It's a jolt to the senses to suddenly find yourself in front of the biggest screen in Britain after months of watching everything on a TV screen, iPad or laptop.

The vast, rumbling score (composed by Black Panther's Ludwig Goransson as Nolan's frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer was busy with the Dune reboot) shocks ears now accustomed to tinny speakers and plastic headphones.

And of course, there's the novelty value of being out of the house. But cinema post-COVID-19 is a very different viewing experience.

Facemasks are mandatory, hand sanitiser is liberally doled out and there is no popcorn or pic 'n' mix on offer.

And if it didn't feel strange enough, the film's opening scene showing hundreds of people filling up a live-music venue, reminds you how strange it is to be sat in a 500-seater auditorium filled to just 10% capacity.

With a minimum of two seats between every person, everyone kept their face masks on throughout.

At one point, an audience member made the decision to nip out to the toilet by climbing over free chairs, such was the motivation to stay at least 2m from everyone else.

It's fair to say that at just over two-and-a-half hours long, this film will not ease you gently back into cinema-going. But that was never Nolan's intention.

It is the first major film to be screened in a cinema since the coronavirus pandemic. Shot on a mixture of IMAX cameras and 70mm film and with a rumoured $200m (£153m budget), it's no surprise that Nolan is characteristically indulgent with time.

Filmed on locations across seven different countries, the movie boasts an impressive international cast which must have accounted for a big slice of the budget, special effects and set-piece action sequences aside (think eight-lane car chases and jumbo-jet hijacks).

But it's apt that it's long, because time is the key concept of this film. There are various attempts to explain the space-time continuum, often led by Robert Pattinson's character Neil who handily has a master's in physics.

But for the likes of you and me, it's probably enough to say that in this film time can move both forwards and backwards simultaneously. There's a time machine too, but Nolan calls it an "inversing machine".

The stakes are high, and we're told the first rule of inversion (aka time travel) is "don't come into contact with your inverted self. Annihilation will occur if you do."

At one point, Clemence Poesy's scientist tells the Protagonist (played by an impressive John David Washington) not to "overthink it". Good advice for the audience too, as if dwelled on too much the pseudo-scientific exposition can become a little tedious.

As this is Hollywood, the film's flagship villain Andrei Sator doesn't need to reverse time to bag a wife half his age. Casting conventions make 30-year-old Elizabeth Debicki a perfectly acceptable match for 60-year-old Sir Kenneth Branagh.

Suffering is always a key occupation for Nolan's female characters, so perhaps this is all part of the plan.

Age qualms aside, Debicki is clearly warming up for her forthcoming stint as Diana in The Crown, and fully convincing as an aristocratic young mum with a husband problem.

Key to the plot is a battle to save humanity, and while we're not always quite sure what the good guys are fighting for (we're told it's not nuclear holocaust, but "something much worse"), there is talk of the end of the world and mention of World War III.

In this fantasy world where time can travel both ways, guns have a whole new function. We're told that handling the weapon feels different because: "You're not shooting the bullet, you're catching it."

Cue lots of holes in walls closing up, bombed buildings miraculously un-demolishing themselves and people doing backwards running. This all works brilliantly on the big screen.

Unfortunately, inverted bullets can do as much damage travelling the other way as their real time counterparts, so the result is just as bloody as a regular shoot out.

True to its action/thriller credentials the movie also has torture, suicide pills, murder and Eastern European henchmen aplenty. Some reviewers have compared it to Bond, but to be fair, it's much more interesting.

There is talk of "lockdown" at one point in the movie, in reference to an art storage facility's security measures, but in the current climate the phrase has very different associations.

In another real-world parallel, characters also frequently wear face coverings: Gas masks to hide their faces and oxygen masks to support their lungs when they're in reversed time (this is also a handy reminder for the audience of which time zone they're in).

In a world now obsessed with facemasks, their prominent placement feels strangely reassuring.

A new experience for many will be sitting through the entire end credits, which is now mandatory. Everyone must file out "row by row in a safe and socially distanced manner" to avoid a crush at the exit.

At least the wait gives you some time to ponder the many troubling issues around time travel which the film brings up - the grandfather paradox, the parallel worlds theory and the law of entropy to name but three.

Towards the end of the movie, we are told the whole operation was "a temporal pizza… and we're only halfway though".

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While it sounds tasty, it also hints at a possible sequel. Or prequel. Who knows, it's confusing.

The real question, is will Tenet be enough to lure people back into an auditorium?

While Nolan's film can't rewind a lost spring and summer, if it can get bums on seats it might just kick start a cinema industry struggling to maintain fans in the age of coronavirus.

Tenet is released in the UK and Ireland on Wednesday 26 August.

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