I have missed going to the movies.
Perhaps that explains why, bright and early on Monday morning, I tried to rent a Zipcar in Brooklyn to drive several hours just to see one.
But after an increasingly frantic hour attempting to obtain an automobile with working locks, I gave up, scurried down the street to the local (and only mildly disreputable) Rent-a-Wreck and hurled credit cards at them until they gave me a car for the day. Then I drove hell-for-leather to an IMAX theater in not-even-neighboring Pennsylvania.
There, I sat down — mask in place, having eaten only what food my caring wife had slipped into my bag — and spent two and a half snackless hours in a stadium about the dimensions of the Olduvai Gorge with (I believe) six other critics, none of us anywhere near the others, watching “Tenet,” the new Christopher Nolan movie about time-traveling explosions.
On the way home, I tried to explain to my brother why (beyond “it’s for work”) I had gone to such trouble and risked a hideous disease — which can potentially rob you of everything from your ability to breathe unassisted to your sense of smell — to watch a sci-fi flick. I told him that I had wiped down the steering wheel with bleach and only stopped very briefly (and close to New York) for food and to stretch my legs, but I knew that it was still a calculated risk.
“Everything’s a calculated risk,” my brother said. “Even crossing the street.”
And that’s true — but, by crossing the street, I risk being squashed to marmalade by a runaway pickup truck, which is not that bad, as unplanned departures go. COVID-19 is reportedly much more horrible. Even if I don’t get it as a result of going to see "Tenet" — and I have taken every precaution I could think of to prevent that from happening — I am now going to spend two weeks taking my temperature and furtively smelling things.
I wouldn’t have gone to a movie six months ago; I would have yelled at any of my loved ones for doing it. But after half a year of sitting indoors with little to hold my attention besides a worsening stream of terrifying news about the potential collapse of democracy, a growing economic calamity and the unspeakable sweep of the disease, it has become clear to me that nobody in power can or will do anything to help us. We have to work, and we have to wait, and we can but pick our pleasures carefully. And so this one time, under the most benign conditions I could arrange, I picked this one.
So how is it? Is it worth risking your life for? Terrific; and no, of course not.
Nearly the whole thing is shot beautifully in IMAX by Hoyte Van Hoytema, and I suppose Nolan was annoyed at the prospect of seeing his enormous brain-melting spectacle shrunk down to the size of a sheet of notebook paper and enjoyed as my son watched Thomas the Tank Engine loudly in the next room. But don’t go to a theater filled with people to watch this or any movie; don’t risk dying of COVID-19. Watch it on your phone next year, Christopher Nolan be damned.
But watch it.
“Tenet” begins, after a big, action-packed prologue, with our protagonist, called (ugh) The Protagonist (John David Washington), learning that the detritus of some future calamity is making its way backward in time, often in the form of ammunition that can be un-fired out of a gun. The material of its big action sequences is an ominous reminder of how bad and strange things will get in the “Tenet”-verse if The Protagonist fails; it’s an echo of a sensation I felt all the way to the movie theater.
The thing I learned from both seeing and getting myself to this movie — besides that buildings exploding backward look super cool — is that America has changed, and in ways that can be communicated only viscerally, by watching EXIT CLOSED sign after EXIT CLOSED sign whiz by on the Pulaski Skyway. (The borders between states are more like borders between countries, now, and American road tourism is a wholly different enterprise today than it was in January.) Our daily lives have changed, and we are no longer divided merely by politics and accents, but by custom and habit, as extreme as the way France is divided from Scotland.
Nolan’s movies, though, tend to be a little more antiseptic than that thought; their emotional content is almost always revealed to be not much more than a series of moves on the chessboard of his intricate plots. “Tenet,” at least, gets a lift from Robert Pattinson, the louche comic relief, whose refusal to take things seriously is the film’s most realistic and charming element; and from Elizabeth Debicki, the enjoyably prim romantic lead. Washington has the kind of stoic confidence we’d expect from an older performer — a Daniel Craig or a Bruce Willis — and Kenneth Branagh is unsurprisingly magnetic as the cruel, villainous billionaire.
But the real star here is the film’s big idea, which is that time can move backwards, and we can move backwards in it. Running a video in reverse is a special effect every teen with a camera has tried on TikTok, and it’s to Nolan’s credit that we don’t ask ourselves how he got a given shot nearly as often as we wonder why no one else had ever thought of a particular twist before him.
Every few minutes there’s some new idea for a surreal action sequence I had never seen; it’s the only spy movie I’ve seen that uses pacing in place of a plot, because its plot is deliberately impossible to parse in a single viewing. This seemed to annoy some of the people in my screening; I loved it. I’m more than happy to watch it again, in my own way, trying to stitch together bits of it until I have a sense of what happened when time was going backwards and what happened when time was going forwards.
People are always worried about spoilers when it comes to big summer blockbusters: rest assured that I could not spoil this film for you if I wanted to because I'd have to be able to explain it better, and I can't yet. There’s a breathtaking scene at the film’s climax in which two warring factions, some moving forward in time and some moving backward, fight a pitched battle in the ruins of a Soviet “closed” city. It’s a synecdoche for the whole movie: It’s difficult to tell who is who, it’s harder still to tell how they got there and when, and the forward-moving scenes are intercut with the backwards ones. And yet it’s just a joy to look at.
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” the British novelist LP Hartley wrote in 1953. Do they ever: friction and heat are reversed, The Protagonist is warned when first he tries out the whole backwards-time thing. Things you thought behaved one way then behave in entirely the opposite way in this brave new world.
It’s an observation that remained with me on the drive home: Every part of the U.S. is stuck, to one degree or another, in that previous timeline where things are done differently; worse, the distribution of that past is uneven, and seeing a familiar trace of bygone years that somehow survived in some COVID-wracked pocket of civilization can fill you with nostalgia and terror simultaneously. Oh, look, a lone bookstore is open! Oh, God, they haven’t even put up plexiglass in front of the cash register!
For the moment, movies like Nolan’s new confection belong in a bygone era. He made a delightful movie about time and fate and the importance of persevering even if the future seems set, and then he released it into movie theaters unexpectedly patrolled by a pale horseman. I’m glad I got to see it, and I’m sorry few others will. And I hope the future is a country where we can go to the movies.