I’ve been following the start-stop, herky-jerky release plans for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet from the get-go. Ordained as the film that was going to re-open commercial cinemas and save them from the ravages of COVID-19, Nolan and Warner Brothers were hellbent on giving Tenet a theatrical release—PVOD streaming be damned!—even when US theaters weren’t fully ready to reopen. So the film took the unusual approach of opening internationally prior to its official run here in the States
starting on September 3.
As a fan of Nolan’s creative time-twisting work (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk), I was eager to see if Tenet lived up to the hype, and seeing it in a commercial cinema was the natural consummation of my relationship with this film. Unfortunately, my wife just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sitting in a movie theater for nearly three hours with a bunch of strangers, regardless of how much the theaters were touting new enhanced cleaning procedures.
The solution? Rent out the entire theater for my own private Tenet watch party!
Besides solving my dilemma of wanting to watch Tenet in the theater, the proposition of having the whole theater to myself for a tentpole film on opening weekend seemed like a baller-move just too big to pass up.
In actuality, it wasn’t that expensive. To entice people back to the cinema, Cinemark is offering special Private Watch Party pricing ranging from $99 to $175 based on location and movie selection. Renting out a theater to watch Tenet only cost me $163.24, including all taxes and fees. For that, you get the place to yourself and can have as many as 20 guests in your party. Seating starts 15 minutes prior to the show, and you even get special pricing on concessions. (A large popcorn is “only” $5, large fountain drinks are $3.50, and candy is $2.50.)
As you can imagine, after months in lockdown, getting 20
friends together to see a movie in a commercial theater and have some sense of normality back in their lives took about as long as copying and pasting, “Hey, I rented out a movie theater to watch Tenet. You want to come see it?” into a text.
Once our party was all together, I showed the theater staff a QR code on my phone and they let us in. Our auditorium had about 45 loungers in it, and we were free to sit wherever we wanted.
Our showing started promptly at 5:15, beginning with trailers for Dune, Wonder Woman 1984, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Following that was a brief ad extolling the virtues of seeing big movies on big screens—a bit reminiscent of the
ads on Blu-ray discs telling you how great Blu-ray discs are (I mean, I was in the theater to see this ad, so it felt a bit like preaching to the choir)—followed by a brief spot extolling all the enhanced measures Cinemark was taking to ensure that its theaters are clean, safe, and comfortable.
The messaging certainly suggested that Cinemark is doing what it can to make the moviegoing experience as safe as possible, but we weren’t there to see if they actually cleaned our auditorium before our seating and didn’t stick around to see whether they fully disinfected it after it was over. There were sanitizing stations around, and all employees—and moviegoers—are required to wear masks. They also really tout the new “3-point air-quality standard” with advanced circulation, filters, and ionization. But beyond the theater not having any odor—or ever
feeling stuffy—I really just have to take them at their word on this as well.
Honestly, besides literally having the auditorium to ourselves, the entire building felt empty. I don’t think we saw more than a half-dozen people who weren’t in our group. Another part of the safe opening is staggered showtimes, creating larger windows between people exiting and entering.
So, if you’re hesitant about being around crowds, that might not even be an issue right now. Another part of nearly every theater’s safe reopening includes limited seating in auditoriums, such as automatically blocking off the seats next to your
party. (Rows ahead and behind in our theaters are already separated by more than six feet, but I understand these are blocked as well when necessary.) And, of course, if you don’t want to be around others, the Private Watch Party is the perfect solution.
Then, trailers and messaging out of the way, it was time for Tenet!
I’m going to keep this totally spoiler-free for two reasons. One, Tenet is an experience you should be able to have unspoiled, and, two, the film is so complex and twisty and mentally fatiguing and confounding, I’m not actually sure I understood it well enough to spoil it! Just as no one could be told what The Matrix was, no one can easily explain and summarize exactly what Tenet is.
Apparently, Nolan has been crafting Tenet for years, saying he deliberated on the film’s central ideas for over a decade and then took more than five years to write the screenplay. With all of that time to weave the story, plot, and world of Tenet, expecting to unpack and process it all in one viewing is an overly ambitious goal, especially with sensory overload happening in many scenes and overlooking small details you aren’t aware are important. If Nolan’s desire was to get people to see his movie in a commercial cinema—preferably on an IMAX screen—he could truly be the savior of the commercial cinema, as it will take multiple viewings to fully take in and comprehend this film.
True to its palindromic title, Tenet plays with time, moving backwards and forwards, sometimes at the same time. I often found myself watching the action unfolding not totally sure what was happening but marveling at the time some of these scenes must have taken in editing and post-production to get just right.
After the film, our group stood in the lobby and parking lot for some time with lots of, “Why did this happen?” and “What was going on here?” and “What do you think this meant?” I don’t visit Reddit, but I can only imagine that Tenet is blowing up the boards there with deep fan-based discussion of what the film is all about.
It’s as if Tenet saw how deep and layered Inception was—with people still debating whether the top is spinning or not—and said, “Hey, Inception. You think you had a complex plot? Hold my beer.”
If you have that one friend who is always confused by film plots, asking what is happening, do not take them—their head will explode.
Ideally, Tenet would come with a detailed Wiki and walkthrough prepared by Nolan, to guide you through the layered world with tips on what to look for, key dialogue to pay attention to, and objects (or colors) in the background to be aware of. Having only seen it once, I can only speculate on what things would be noticed and understood on the second or third viewing.
Tenet is a cool, slick, fast-paced film that travels the globe to exotic locations. It features car chases, elaborate heists, massive gun battles, and huge set pieces. I’m not sure it is a fun film to watch, but it is definitely an interesting and deeply cerebral film. Nolan doesn’t dumb it down, spell things out for the masses, or try to offer any overly helpful exposition.
One thing that definitely didn’t help with understanding the film is the sound mix. Music and effects are often playing quite loud, even when characters are talking. Compounding that is the fact that characters are often wearing masks, making the dialogue exasperatingly difficult to understand. Removing the ability to understand lines of dialogue at key moments takes an already complex plot and puts it up on Legendary mode. I’m hoping they do some remixing for the home release, but if nothing else, you might get more out of Tenet by being able to watch it with subtitles turned on.
Featuring a strong cast that includes John David Washington (Denzel’s son), Robert Pattinson (whose performance made me believe he can pull off Batman), Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Himesh Patel, and a wonderful (but short) scene with Michael Caine, performances are solid throughout.
Now that it’s finally here and showing in commercial cinemas, I’m not sure Tenet fully lives up to all the hype and expectation that had been heaped upon it, or that we’ll ever fully understand all of its intricacies, subtleties, and meanings, but it is the first summer blockbuster to come to theaters, and if you have the means to safely see it, it certainly makes for an interesting two-and-a-half hours for sure. And remember, what’s happened’s happened.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.