I wrote a previous review of Tenet for comingsoon.net, so this won’t be a completely standard review—it’s more like some thoughts about Tenet after the fact, including its impact on the film industry, on the occasion of it being released on Blu-Ray.
Obviously, Tenet came out in August and was not quite the film that rescued cinema, which had been what Warner Bros. was hoping for, but it was also not quite the disaster that some people seem to think it was. In fact, Tenet was actually the fourth-highest-grossing film of the year (the top two were both Chinese films.)
Director Christopher Nolan doesn’t make particularly “human” characters, they are all archetypes. Kenneth Branagh chews the scenery a bit as the Russian oligarch villain, but the acting is all fine. Robert Pattinson, one of the few actors of his generation who is always worth watching, is quite amusing as he does his young Christopher Hitchens impression.
It’s very much a combination of a lot of different kinds of films that Nolan is into, from high-concept science fiction to spy films and ‘70s conspiracy thrillers, and there’s a combat sequence in it as well. One of the big influences on the film was Once Upon a Time in the West. Tenet is not a Western, of course, but Leone made Once Upon a Time in the West as almost an anthology film, with set pieces linking aspects of his favourite Westerns. It seems like that is what Nolan has done here as well.
It’s not my favourite movie of the year by any stretch, but as always with Nolan’s films, it’s impressive—as Terry Gilliam has said, his movies are always technically impressive even when the ideas are not always. Nolan is a director who doesn’t like to use CGI much, but he did so with Inception, as he had to with city bending sequences. Tenet has very little CGI by comparison—at one point the director said there is less CGI in it than your average rom-com! In any case, it will be interesting to what Nolan will do next: he could go with something smaller, which would make sense because Tenet lost a lot of money (but will break even within the next year or so—plus Warner is owned by Warner Media, so losses get written off essentially.)
Seeing in it the cinema was a very strange kind of experience because of the build-up. When you actually went to see it, you were lucky if the room was just half full where you’d have expected it to be rammed, and most cinemas were still trying to figure out how to do social distancing. Tenet has gotten a lot of abuse, and has been blamed for this situation that cinema now finds itself in, but someone had to be first out of the gate. Nolan’s film was ready, and he wanted it out. If I had been running Warner Bros, I would have chosen Wonder Woman 84 over Tenet, just because it’s a comic book movie and more accessible, not a risky original story. For me that would have been the more logical choice.
But while Nolan had been pretty adamant about Tenet being the film to “save cinema,” the criticism has been slightly unfair. Nolan makes films for the big screen, and he clearly loves the cinema experience. And the film is a dazzling sort of puzzle: a science fiction/James Bond kind of movie (I’ve called it 0012 Monkeys before). I actually think it’s one of Nolan’s better movies in recent years, better than Inception, in fact. Inception has not aged very well, and other films have done the same thing better. Tenet is a much stranger movie, and the twist is way more interesting than Inception’s “is it a dream or not” story. I will maintain The Prestige is still Nolan’s best because it has a sense of whimsy that I find intoxicating but is absent from his other films.
The bigger picture is that due to the release of Tenet not doing as well as was hoped, Warner Bros. has decided in the US (and possibly other markets) to dump all their films on HBO Max at the time of their theatrical release. Nolan has lambasted this move, could he strong sever ties with Warner Bros. over this? The UK doesn’t have that streaming service, but there have been talks of a deal with Sky Cinema or possibly Amazon to stream Warner films for a certain amount of time as cinema closures and the changing nature of distribution affect their plans. But Warner is going ahead with Wonder Woman 84’s theatrical release this week, with a streaming option within a month after that on Sky Cinema. Given that US streaming release will be pirated straight away, no premium rental option doesn’t make much sense for the UK. The future of cinemas is bleak at the moment but hopefully with the vaccinate for Coronavirus being dished out soon may audiences will return to movie theatres. When I went to the cinema on the opening night pre-Covid they were rarely that full so maybe it’s the inevitable… they did have a good run.
You couldn’t see anyone other than Christopher Nolan really making a film like Tenet, not least because there are very few directors who have the power required. It makes for an interesting, convoluted, bombastic movie that has definitely dominated the conversation of film this year, along with Mank and Netflix’s “7 part series or is it a film?” The Queen’s Gambit. The future of what is a film and what is television will continue to be explored, in no small part due to Warner’s announcement and the quality of work being released by streamers.
As is typical with Nolan’s films, Tenet comes out as a two-disc Blu-Ray. The first disc is just the film; the second has a feature-length documentary on the making of Tenet, various teasers and trailers. It’s also also available in a 4K Ultra-HD release for those who have the capability. You might even be able to understand what they’re saying with the increased quality (although I wasn’t bothered by the fact that some dialogue in the film a little muffled—it added to the puzzle of the movie).