Tenet

 

Tenet is the only major theatrical movie release of the 2020 summer season. Since march, every title that was scheduled to be released has moved either to 2021 or to VOD due to the Covid19 restrictions. Yet Warner brothers and Christopher Nolan stood defiantly against this tide and made good on their word to have this movie released this year and as God (Nolan) had planned. Ok, there was a minor hick-up of 6 weeks, but still. Christopher Nolan is probably the only director today who’s name holds enough sway to put butts in seats in a theater, regardless who is starring in his movie and what that movie is about, so naturally the studio had some high expectation in terms of box office, especially since they bet over 200 million dollars on an entirely original, non IP/franchise, script and on Nolans name. In an age when even the legend Scorsese has to bite his tongue and team up with streaming services to get funding to his projects, this is no small feat. The plan was that by the time that US theaters would open back up, Tenet would be the only major welcoming title on display. Alas, things did not go as well as it was hoped, and theaters in the US are mostly closed than opened, and given the huge bill this movie has worked up, Warner had to scrap any conventional release strategy and went ahead with releasing the movie anywhere it could to start making back its investment as soon as possible. As such, Tenet is no longer the movie that saved theaters after Covid. But could it have been?

 

Short answer: no, not really. In an age when studios and directors are afraid to challenge their audience and are treating them as small children by explaining everything in the movie, Nolan does the complete opposite and sets the bars so high for the viewer that I am afraid most people will just quit instead of putting in the effort. And should one rise to the occasion, the payoff is somewhat subpar. This is not me saying that the movie is bad, because its not, but it definitely comes across as, shall we say, overpriced. 

 

The story is as follows: the protagonist (thats his name, even in the credits – played by John David Washington) is a CIA agent that is tasked to a very clandestine mission after an assignment went quite wrong. He learns that he has to prevent the third world war, something that will be worse than a nuclear holocaust, but he is flying blind, as nobody that guides him knows the entire picture of what is going on, and this is by design, apparently. Eventually he is targeting a Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) through his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a distant member of the British aristocracy. Also, he gets a small team to help out, composed by Neil (Robert Pattinson), Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mahir (Himesh Patel). Michael Caine is also credited in the movie, but he only appears in one scene. 

 

If we subtract the sci-fi elements, the basic plot is something out of a standard James Bond movie. Secret society member Russian arms dealer plans something horrid for the world, rival secret society member secret agent has to save the world and the damsel in distress wife of bad guy is caught in the crossfire. Seems pretty straight forward, doesn’t it? Problem is, once you add back the sci-fi aspect of the story a number of things begin to happen. First, you will struggle to keep up with the movie for the initial two thirds, because its structure is everything but straight forward. You will get hit by information and questions in an alarming rate and thins will just keep piling up with no break in sight for you to be able to process everything until like the beginning of the third act. Also here, on many occasions, you will not be able to understand what the people on screen are saying. Either a sound mixing was done very poorly or it was done in such high quality that 99% of theaters just don’t have the capacity for anything else than to butcher it. The second thing that will happen is that due to the afford mentioned cascade of information to digest, you will have no capacity to register anything else you would with a normal movie, such as chemistry between characters, humor, the musical score, etc. Honestly, during my first screening of this movie, I could not help to think that I am watching a specked up Quantum of Solace, as despite the quality of the acting, action and everything else that was on screen, nothing seemed to mix with each other. It was only during my second screening that I started to notice how actually there is a vibe between the characters, that the musical score is doing certain things during certain moments, that I have discovered that there is an actual movie here and not just noise. But I had to learn the lay of the land first, so to speak. Just as certain foods needs to be reheated for a second time for the tastes to really mix, so is Tenet in need for at least 2 viewings to be somewhat understood, as the overall story is just too much for anything else to be perceived during the first viewing. Unfortunately, while the movie is good, it is not great. The baseline Bond story is nowhere near to match the sci-fi shtick it is being applied to, or the masterful execution of it. The Russian bad guy is painfully standard issue and not even Kenneth Branagh’s performance could have saved it from being a complete cliché. In a same manner, Elizabeth Debicki’s character is also a cookie cutter abused wife, with nothing original going on. Even worse, in every other movie that she is in, Debicki is playing some sort of abused wife/girlfriend, that she is on the verge of being typecast. Given her talent and the she looks like Galadriel incarnate, this is very unfortunate. The protagonist is in a marginally better situation, as he is written in a more lively manner and John David Washington’s screen presence does channel a much needed freshness. That being said, the protagonist doesn’t even have a name or backstory. All that we know about him is what he does, namely taking out bad guys and saving as many innocents as possible. I guess characterization through action does have it merits. The only figures with any “meat on their bones” are Neil, Ives and Mahir, the protagonist’s small team members, which even with a much less screen time feel more 3D than everybody else combined. 

The major selling point of the movie is the action. Which is just mind boggling. It looks great, it is innovative and more importantly, it is real. Nolan did not use any green screens, the actors are actually doing what you see they are doing, the plane you see exploding in the trailer is an actual, full size plane, not a model or computer animation. The number of VFX shots in this movie is under 300, while Batman Begins has over 600, and thats a movie that hasn’t got any of the wonders you will see in Tenet. There are 4 major action set pieces and all of them are impressive, to say the least. If there is anything that will encourage a second viewing fo Tenet, it will be the action. 

The cinematography was done by Hoyte Van Hoytema, and it is crisp and brilliant, as expected. This is the third Nolan movie in a row where Hoytema helms the photography, as this honor belonged to Wally Pfinster ever since Nolan did Memento back in 2000. In any ways, Hoytema’s name is a guarantee for visual excellence, even if the movies he is involved with might not turn out to be the expected success (see Ad Astra).

The score is done by Ludwig Göransson, which is another departure from Nolan’s regular crew, as usually he employs Hans Zimmer to do the music. Unfortunately, Zimmer  was unavailable for the job, so it went to his protégé, Göransson. If you are unfamiliar with his name, he did the score for both Creed movies, Black Panther – for which he received the Oscar, and more recently, the score for the Mandalorian series. That being said, the score is a typical Nolan score, loud and grandiose. However, due to the nature of the movie, there are moments where  Göransson has room to show creativity, which work extremely well, but again, it is unlikely that these will be discovered during the first viewing of the movie. That being said, they will be a rewarding find in later screenings.

All things considered, from a technical point of view, Tenet will age gracefully and will be able to hold its own ground even 20-30 years from now, just as Jurassic Park still can do it today.

 

As for Nolan as a writer/director, well… As I mentioned in the opening, he is the only one director in the business today that can will an ambitious and original project into existence with full funding and virtually zero studio interference. The only one that can deliver originality, prestige and box office at the same time. However, this is the second movie in a row, where the concept of the movie was more important to him than the story he put on the screen. With Dunkirk, this wasn’t that much of an issue, as given that stories nature, it lended itself quite well to become that conceptual experience ride that Nolan has envisioned. In Tenet however, this is not the case. The base concept is just too demanding of a story that is underdeveloped, despite the movies 2 and a half hour long runtime. Christopher Nolan the director has finally grasped beyond the reach of Christopher  Nolan the writer. Now, in any given year, this would result in a box office disaster that would ruin Nolan’s stellar record. But we are in 2020, so the box office disaster is a default regardless of the quality of the movie, and maybe, given the circumstances, more people would return to see Tenet in theaters than otherwise in a packed summer season, when every week there are 2-3 new major releases to compete for peoples attention and money. So I would say that Nolan got a “get out of jail free” card this time. Hopefully, he will use it wisely. None the less, this is by far the most ambitious undertaking Nolan has ever produced, and this needs to be praised. Also here, many were theorizing that Tenet is somehow linked to Inception, as if they were in the same universe, a theory strengthen by the 10 years anniversary rerelease of Inception back in theaters. There is absolutely zero connection between the two movies besides Christopher Nolan being in the directors chair and Michael Caine briefly on the screen.  

 

Overall, Tenet is a challenging piece of cinema, that, despite its shortcomings, must be cherished and nurtured. Although, as original as Nolan is – and he is original – it would help him to stop trying to be our days version of Kubrick.

 

Ad Astra

It is rare for me to watch the same movie twice in theaters and even more so to do it within 24 hours. In fact, I have not done this ever, until today, but this film demanded it. I did not know much about the story before the first viewing. I knew that it was a space opera, so I was really hoping for it to be good, as this is probably my utmost favorite genre and there aren’t that many entries in it, at least not in the last two decades. Brad Pitt was the lead actor, so I knew that the acting will be good, and the buzz from the critics seemed favorable enough, so I was hoping for this movie to become the next best thing ever, at least in my eyes. Afterwards, knowing what the movie was about, I went back to see it again, to find out if there is anything that I might have missed the first time around, some hidden subtleties, details, which would confer extra meaning or depth to the movie. But, alas, Ad Astra is not what I hope it would be. It is probably the most realistic depiction of space travel though, as it feels longer than a rainy Monday and is boring as hell…

The story goes as follows: Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, an astronaut extraordinaire. He is so dedicated, so focused on his duties, that all other aspects of his life are totally ignored. As it happens, one day he is working on this huge tower, some sort of telescope or what, that reaches from the ground all the way to the edge of space. They are searching for alien civilizations, which seems to be everybody’s past time hobby those days. Regardless, Roy is on working outside on the tower, at the edge of space when suddenly the tower gets hit by a surge of energy which wrecks the place. Turns out, the surge comes from Neptune, where Roy’s father went a long time ago to search for, you guessed it, alien civilizations. Apparently, he might have something to do with the surge. As such, Roy must travel to Mars, so that he can get in touch with his father in order to find out where exactly is he and then to be able to do something about what happening, because the surges just keep on coming and they are frying all electronics and possible they can kill all life on Earth. Needless to say, this would be bad. To prevent it, Roy ventures after his father, to the edge of space…

So, let us get trough the positives first. The movie is just beautiful to look at. Wide, crystal clear shots when it comes to scenery and action. Great, detailed close ups when it comes to dialogue. And there is an interesting play with lighting and colors trough the movie. But this is no surprise as the cinematographer is Hoyte Van Hoytema, one of best in the game right now. Also, the sets, equipment’s, the general world building looks authentic, albeit somewhat dated. I mean, I would expect that in the near future, space travel would look a bit more modern than a bunch of gauges, buttons and knobs, but then again I am no space travel expert and the movie looks really authentic in every other aspects, so maybe this too is on the level. But it is safe to say that if space exploration wouldn’t have died off after the moon landing, today we would be at the level depicted in Ad Astra. That being said, Kubrick did the whole space travel thing better.

 The acting, as mentioned in the opening, is great. Brad Pitt gives a great performance, taking a page out of Ryan Goslings book. By this I mean that his performance is really restraint, and instead of talking he lets his eyes convey his reaction/message. It is an unusual approach from Pitt, but it works wonders. Second most important role goes to Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the father of Roy. Jones too gives a great performance, although he has a fairly small screen time and a role that he could carry easily woken from a drunken stupor. Other supporting roles go to Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga, both of which are fine. Liv Tyler is also credited, but she is barely on screen, and has just one scene where she talks, and even there, she talks of a mobile device as a recorded video message. Now, revisiting the trailers after watching the movie, it is clear to me that the first act of the movie was somewhat different at one time and there is a lot of shots that ended on the editing rooms floor. So, it is possible that all the secondary actors had bigger parts in the beginning. Maybe we will find out when the movie is released on home video.

But what I really wanted to talk about this movie is James Gray, the director/screenwriter of this movie. He previously did movies such as The Lost City Of Z and We Own The Night. He himself described this movie as a mix between 2001 A Space Odyssey and Apocalypse Now. While the comparison with 2001 ASO is self-explanatory, I find the comparison with Apocalypse Now to be superficial at best. Yes, in both movies the hero had to travel a great distance to find a once exceptional now fallen from grace character and kill them. But everything else is different. Apocalypse is a war movie, not just because it happens with a war in the background and its characters are soldiers, but because war, and the horror it inflicts on everybody involved, is an essential, vital component of the movie. It is what moves both the hero and the antagonist. Ad Astra is a space opera, but in this case, space is nothing but a setting. Both the hero and the antagonist are astronauts, but they might as well could have been musicians in 18th century Vienna, and the essence of the story would not have changed at all. You need war for Apocalypse, you don’t need space for Ad Astra.

This is mainly due to the fact that, in essence, Ad Astra is nothing more than a 2 hour long therapy session. How the obsession of the father becomes a destructive force in his child’s life. In this regard, Ad Astra is a perfect companion to Grays previous film, The Lost City of Z, where the protagonist becomes so obsessed by the idea of finding a lost city, that he neglects his family and his son, once at age, in an attempt to win his fathers love, joins one of his expeditions, only to die in it. Here too, we have something similar, but now the viewpoint is the one of the child’s, how he tried to win his absentee fathers love all his life, by shaping his own life in his father’s image, dedicating himself to his father’s ideals, ending up to embark on the same journey to the end of the world in order to reconnect. All the big ideas that are touched upon in the movie, like “is there life out in the universe besides us?”, “where does humanity go in the future?”, “what if we are all there is?”, are nothing more than afterthoughts, something cool to wave in front our eyes, but they are never examined, never explored. These ideas should be the driving force for something like Ad Astra, instead they are barely footnotes. Granted, these concepts are far more complex to process than a screwed-up father-son relationship. To re-enforce the idea of the therapy session, the hero needs to undergo regular psychological evaluations, in order to gain permission to go further with his mission. Apparently, it is not a good thing to be emotional for astronauts.

Honestly, my immediate first choice for comparison was Interstellar, as both movies deal with the salvation of the human race trough the means of space travel and both of them involve a complicate father-child relationship. Also, both of them were shot by Hoytema.

But, at the end of the day, it is irrelevant to which other space opera movie are we comparing Ad Astra. Despite all the visuals and performances, it is a boring story. And while the hero finds catharsis, us, the audience, are underwhelmed. There is nothing for us to stay engaged with, to root for, to offer us satisfaction. It leaves us in the same state as the astronauts are desired to be in it, emotionless.
 Which is a pity, because it is rather clear the movie had more to offer, that its world has been conceived in more detail. There are armed conflicts on the moon for territory, there are pirates there as well, but besides an irrelevant buggy chase and a couple of mentions, we get nothing from this idea. There are experiments done in space, but besides a scene worthy of a horror movie, we get nothing more from this either. There is an outpost on Mars, what’s life there? Nope, not a thing. Brooding and self-reflection? Oh yes, please, you can have hours’ worth of that stuff. I could watch 2001 ASO and Interstellar back to back and it still would not feel as long as Ad Astra. Also, it would be a MUCH more satisfying watch as well.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn down the road that originally, this would have been a much different movie, with a much longer run time and that the studio has applied pressure on the filmmaker to trim it down to 2 hours. It’s definitely one of the years bigger disappointments.

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