This past weekend, my family and I continued a wintery Star Wars tradition and travelled to London to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker in IMAX at the wonderful Empire Cinema in Leicester Square. There we were treated to a sneak peak of Christopher Nolan’s latest film – titled Tenet – which is showing at select IMAX screens in front of the space opera’s supposedly final chapter. This is now something of a custom for Nolan’s films ever since the preview screenings of the bank heist scene from The Dark Knight were shown in front of IMAX films back in 2008, and I myself saw the prologue of Dunkirk three years ago now when it preceded Rogue One in the very same theatre I attended this weekend. In total there was about 6 or 7 minutes of Tenet footage, largely composed of a single sequence and then a short trailer that featured a lot of the same footage as the trailer available online.
Before we get into my thoughts and opinions, I’ll lay down the basic plot of the scene we saw in case you’ve yet to witness it yourself, and it seems like the footage takes place very early in the film so I wouldn’t consider anything shown to be a spoiler. The sequence begins with terrorists invading a Russian concert hall, seemingly inspired by the Moscow theatre hostage crisis of 2002. Our protagonist, played by John David Washington, waits with a colleague in a van parked outside, somewhat aware of what is transpiring and planning their own covert operation. Once Russian special forces arrive, Washington affixes the correct patch to his shoulder to blend in before raiding the concert hall with the police thinking he’s one of their own. Soon he splits off from the squad and reveals his true mission: to capture and escape with a High Value Target hiding in one of the boxes. As the Russians gas the hall to put the civilian hostages to sleep, the terrorists rush to put on gas masks and Washington finds his target. Together they abseil down to the lower levels and feign being sleeping civilians before moving to escape as a firefight erupts. But instead of leaving, Washington returns to the hall to remove bombs set by the terrorists and throws them into the now empty box to save the hostages’ lives, bringing him into conflict with the police who now realise he’s not one of them. During a fight, a bullet hole seems to disappear and a bullet enters a man’s firing gun rather than exit in the only piece of time travel shenanigans on show in the footage. Washington then leaves with his target and they enter the van to escape.
It’s quite hard and probably unfair to review 6 minutes of out-of-context film, which is exactly what this felt like. Whereas the bank heist from The Dark Knight or the plane, well, heist from The Dark Knight Rises work as singular sequences that can be seen, understood and appreciated by themselves, the footage from Tenet works less well in a vacuum. I had similar feelings towards the Dunkirk preview – a film I ended up loving – and while I enjoyed what I saw of Tenet and I’m eager to see more, the scene didn’t work as its own piece. It drops you into the deep end and expects you work out what’s happening quickly and on the fly. I usually enjoy that and I did find working out what Washington’s plan was while he was enacting it to be quite satisfying, but other elements were more confusing. With the protagonist and his ally wearing the same uniform, and face-hiding mask, as the Russian police it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. While I’m sure uncertainty is the aim – especially with it being implied that Washington has extracted the wrong HVT at the end – at times it was a bit much. And the one piece of potential sci-fi time reversal we saw completely came out of nowhere and I’m not sure what actually happened. Did Washington’s character make it happen, or his adversary who fired the weapon? How did it occur and for what purpose? Ultimately it came across as abrupt and confusing rather than intriguing.
One thing’s for certain, the footage is instantly recognisable as being from a Christopher Nolan film. Tenet has the same feel and visual language as his other films, most of all Inception which has led to people theorising that the two films are set in the same world, although I think it just speaks more to Nolan’s consistent visual sensibilities than a shared universe. Nolan is clearly a James Bond fan and while that film series has influenced his films before, again most noticeably in Inception, the international spy games seen in Tenet may be his biggest homage to the franchise yet. James Bond with time travel does sound like the coolest idea ever so I’m definitely in, even if I would like to see Nolan direct a Bond film at some point in the future. Tenet is Nolan through and through, not only with a high concept idea, consistent visual style and some returning actors like Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh, but also with yet more men wearing suits (another example of Nolan’s self-insertion) and John David Washington wears a mask throughout the scene making him near incomprehensible, just like Tom Hardy in both Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk.
Overall, I don’t think the Tenet prologue did an awfully good job of selling the movie and the trailer is much stronger in that regard. I’m interested by the concept, even though we still don’t know exactly what it is, and the footage is well shot, but the scene doesn’t exactly work as its own piece when taken out of the movie. And while I love the IMAX format and would quite happily watch anything and everything that way, the prologue did little to show off the detail and scale IMAX offers. I enjoyed the trailer for the film and while the footage didn’t make me any more excited for Tenet, it didn’t make me any less excited either. Nolan’s back with another film that I hope to be another masterpiece, but his penchant for offering these IMAX sneak peaks was unnecessary this time around.
Did you see the 6-minute Tenet IMAX prologue? Are you excited for the film? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.