Seeing 'Tenet' at the drive-in did nothing to make the plot any less confusing, but it did alleviate the anxiety of being confined inside a movie theater for two-and-a-half-hours. I was just happy to be watching a film on a big screen again.
NORTH SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Seeing "Tenet" at a drive-in is a last resort, but it sure beats sitting with strangers in an enclosed movie theater for two-and-a-half hours.
Before COVID-19, I was a regular once-a-week moviegoer. Some weeks it was something amazing like Bong Joon-ho's Oscar-winning "Parasite" or something serious and thought-provoking like the documentary "One Child Nation." Other weeks it was whatever was new and looked halfway decent, like last year's adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "Color Out of Space" (entertaining yes, halfway decent no).
Then that weekly ritual of a new movie and a beer afterward to talk about it petered out after the Ben Affleck drama "The Way Back," which was released way back in March when the coronavirus was taking root. I didn't feel comfortable sitting in a theater and then the state shut them down, anyway.Want news like this sent straight to your inbox? Head over to PatriotLedger.com to sign up for alerts and make sure you never miss a thing. You pick the news you want, we deliver.
Cut to the summer and despite most major releases ("A Quiet Place 2") being pushed back or released on streaming or premium video-on-demand ("Mulan"), it seemed like writer-director Christopher Nolan's highly anticipated "Tenet" was coming hell or high water or unmitigated pandemic.
I couldn't wait to see it. I'm a Nolan ("Inception," "Interstellar," "The Dark Knight") fan and the movie looked like a fun high-budget action thriller and it could be the only blockbuster to come out this year. The film's initial planned release date came and went with Massachusetts theaters still closed. "Tenet" kept getting pushed back and back. The fluid release date of "Tenet" became as story unto itself. When would it come out?
It debuted Sept. 3 — but only in theaters, as per the director's insistence that his movie be seen on the big screen. I'm still gun shy about that, being asthmatic and all. Dejectedly, I knew I'd have to wait for it to release digitally in a few months. I resigned to watch "Tenet" — and Hoyte van Hoytema's award-worthy cinematography — in my home on a tiny screen.
Then a text message snapped me out of it.
A friend had discovered "Tenet" was playing about an hour away at the Rustic Tri-Vue Drive-In in North Smithfield, Rhode Island.
I was ecstatic.
We got to the drive-in nerdy early on a Sunday, just as it opened at 7 p.m., in separate cars. We grabbed candy, hopped back in our cars when it got dark, and away we went on a time-twisting ride with John David Washington leading the way to save the world from imminent destruction.
The experience wasn't perfect, but it's nothing that should alarm Nolan, because none of these flaws detracted from the communal, movie-going experience. But here goes: The screen wasn't particularly bright and parts of the film were quite dark. There were a few little cracks in the screen. You use you car radio to hear the soundtrack, and I was afraid I was going to kill my battery for the entire two-and-half hour run time, an intermittent foreboding chirp from my car about that possibility cemented that fear.
On the flip side, having control of the audio turned out to be a helpful for "Tenet" as the score and sound effects wash out the dialogue. When it got hard to hear, I cranked it up, then of course, something would blow up and the sound was deafening. The audio quirks didn't seem to be a fault of the drive-in, but how the movie was mixed, according to lots of other reviews I've read where people have had similar issues.
The movie itself left lots to be desired. It was an actioner where Washington's character, known simply as The Protagonist, is tasked with saving the world from a maniacal Russian arms dealer named Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh, who wants to watch the world burn. Simple enough, but add in that people in the film have the ability to move backwards and forward through time, a concept that's explanation is "yada-yada-yada-ed" in the film. The Protagonist is told by a scientist meant to help move the plot along to not worry exactly how it works, the recommendation holds for the viewer as well.
The Russian arms dealer is being helped by the future? Or maybe a future self? There's also some sort of doomsday device algorithm, the pieces of which were hidden through time. I couldn't make heads-or-tails of it on first viewing and not being able to hear parts of dialogue probably didn't help. Although maybe it didn't actually matter.
Robert Pattinson plays a dashing sidekick, and Elizabeth Debicki plays Kat, Sator's wife, who is at times a damsel in distress, someone bent on revenge and pseudo-love interest for The Protagonist.
It was hard to root for Washington's The Protagonist. In Nolan's reboot of the The Batman franchise, we know who Batman/Bruce Wayne is, and we see his pain. In the Jason Bourne action thrillers, which serve as a handy comparison for "Tenet," we begin to learn who Bourne is alongside the character, who lost his memory. The Protagonist is just a handsome guy in a nice suit with a couple of wooden one-liners working for ... someone.
The Protgaonist is at one point a CIA agent but then ends up working for a more shadowy network. A character played by Michael Caine hands him a credit card and extols the virtues of an expensive suit, telling him to save the world first and then the books will be balanced later. James Bond, obviously, comes to mind, but he has more kitsch and feels much more lived in. Bond movies also don't require a post-viewing Reddit deep dive to figure out what happened.
Nolan has played with time, memory and other heady concepts in previous work like "Inception" and "Memento," but this time it seemed like he may have been able to clearly explain to himself was going on, while the viewer gets lost along the way. Aside from the messy plot and writing, the film was beautiful and gripping. There's a car-chase scene that feels like a mashup of "The Fast and the Furious" and "The Matrix Reloaded," and is absolutely stunning.
Despite having a hard time figuring out what was going on, I still couldn't look away. Throw in some wild stunts and action sequences, exotic locales and some giant set pieces, the movie was already halfway to being great. Seeing it at the drive-in did nothing to make the plot any less confusing, but it did alleviate the anxiety of being confined inside a movie theater for two-and-a-half-hours. I was just happy to be watching a film on a big screen again.
Joe Difazio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.