Tenet

This was probably the most anticipated film of the summer for a lot of people. Because of the Pandemic shutdowns, it got pushed back three times before finally making it to theaters this week. Bu all means, see this movie if you are interested, in a theater. The scope, photography and action sequences will be diminished if you choose to see this on a tablet, TV screen or heaven forbid, on a phone.

I want to start with a message that is also a warning. If, during the course of this Two and a half hour film, you need to visit the restroom or concession stand, and you are worried you will miss something that clarifies the story or advances the plot in the time you are gone, go ahead and go. Nothing explained in any five minute sequence during the film, will help you keep track of what the hell is going on in this movie. “Inception”, “Memento” and “Interstellar” all play with time and parallel events. If you ever had trouble following those concepts, which are reasonably well explained although still confusing at times, get ready to feel completely lost. For the first hour, things made sense and you could follow the logic of the world Christopher Nolan has created here. The premise is interesting and it contains the usual conundrums that time travel stories face. The problem is that about a third of the way into the film, two or three additional plot elements are introduced, each one with different time influences , and they all start influencing each other. Sometimes those effects are so complicated that a map would not help you. Events start moving faster and trying to keep up will be a waste of time if you are also trying to enjoy the movie.

There is nothing inherently wrong  in having a complicated plot, if at some point you can make sense of how it all comes together, “Tenet” attempts that but largely fails to be coherent, even though several of the twists involve tricks you have seen a hundred times before in a time travel story. Ultimately, I think you can view this film as one loop in an event that has a limitless number of possible variations. Doing that will not make the story more satisfying however. I would have to see the movie several more times to pick out the inconsistencies and  conundrums that pop up, but to be honest, Nolan himself doesn’t seem to care about them. He even has one of the characters say as much, fairly early in the film. Stop trying to make sense, let’s just let this wash over us. I can live with that, but it will leave Tenet as an exercise in style and film making, rather than a piece of cinematic art. 

With a pre-title sequence that feels a lot like a Bond film, Nolan sets this up as an espionage story, that potentially would be confusing the way some double and triple cross stories can be, but it would still be grounded. As the science fiction element takes center stage, the tradition spy tropes get doubled back on with a wink and a nod to time travel twists we have seen before. I won’t spoil it for you, but during a heist scene, one character confronts another and we don’t see the second characters face in that sequence. You know that will play out again, and there will be a reveal.,,guess what’s coming.

John David Washington has just enough charisma to play the low key “Protagonist” of the story. The scene that shows off the potential of what might have been a solid spy film, involves his lunch with Michael Caine. It is not his fighting skill, or dramatic intensity that makes the scene work, rather, it is his bemused self confidence in the face of being judged by others. One place I don’t think he was quite successful at was the near romantic element of his relationship with the character played by actress Elizabeth Debicki. I can buy that he feels a sense of responsibility for her in a paternalistic way, but the embers of romance that are supposed to be the base of this are not there.  He can sell that he cares, what is not clear is why he cares.

We get a pretty good preview of what the next Batman movie will be like because Robert Pattinson, plays a much more active Felix Leiter to Washington’s 007. I suspect, that as in most of the good Batman films, the quirky Bruce Wayne will not take a back seat to the brooding “Dark Knight”. Pattinson plays Neil, the mysterious counterpart to the Protagonist, and he has a light touch with the humor and enough presenter to sell the physicality. 

You ready for a surprise? The actor who steals the movie is Kenneth Branagh. Taking the start he made on a similar character in the Jack Ryan film from a few years ago, Branagh manages to make a cartoon villain feel dangerously real. A kingpin of a Russian oligarch, it would be easy to just say the lines and have threats come off as empty bravado. Nolan gives Branagh actions to play that show us his ruthlessness, the actor adds a sense of menace to those lines, but never with the charm of a fictional character. Instead, the deadly earnestness of his performance is disturbingly real. The tiniest touch of humanity right at the end of the film paints just enough of a persona to make the character evn more real, and loathsome. 

Filmed in some of the most beautiful locales in the world, it would be hard to fault the look of the picture. The movie is not overcut in the action scenes, but the parallel time tracks and reverse structure do require some frequent cuts in perspective that can get a bit confusing at times. The backward car chase sequence looks great, but when it is followed up on, instead of being clearer, it leads us to start questioning what we really saw before, but not in the good way that it is supposed to work. 

At two and a half hours, despite a solid pace, the film feels long. Probably because of the plot conceit concerning inverted time elements. I loved “Memento” but it was less than two hours and the same kind of thing happens there. Adding another forty minutes to it would do to it what happens with “Tenet”, it makes you look at your watch and wonder how much longer it is going to go on.  Maybe when it is serialized as a four hour mini-series, it will work better. 

Christopher Nolan has one of the greatest imaginations in the film industry. There are terrific concepts in most of the movies he has made. There are simply too many times that we ravel on a tangent that takes up a chunk of time but might have been replaced with something simpler as just as easy to admire. The stacking Russian Doll story structure worked well in “Dunkirk”, it was clever in “Inception”, but it is simply overdoing it in this movie. 

I probably sound like I am down on the film, I’m not really. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Pattinson and Washington invading a penthouse in India, or doing a heist at an airport freeport, were well staged action scenes. The inverted battle at the climax of the movie was spectacular to look at but mostly incomprehensible. The inverted stories are fine but when you start to retcon your own movie to change the outcomes, you create dilemmas that Solomon could not work out and algorithms that might give Einstein fits. See the movie, go with what is happening on the screen at any point and don’t try to make it make sense. That extra brainwork will distract from the moment, and it is the moments that make this movie worth seeing, not the plot.  

LIFE

[This is traditionally a spoiler free site. This review may have content which indirectly gives away some plot elements. Sorry, but the movie turned me a bit reactionary.]

I will hold my powder dry until the end of this post. There are so many things I liked about this movie that it would be a disservice to start with the thing that irritated me the most. Instead, we’ll concentrate on the strong points at the outset and hope that my ire calms down enough to be fair to the movie. “Life” is a horror film in a science fiction atmosphere. That makes it sound derivative of “Alien”, but that’s OK because as great as “Alien” is, it is also a product of ideas that came before it, and it made a great film, so this could do the same.

An International Space Station, set up to process materials from other planets, (basically Mars), receives a sample back after the delivery capsule encounters some problems on it’s way to them. A group of six scientists and engineers are ready to take possession and begin analysis in the safety of space, above the Earth. Naturally things do not go as smoothly as expected. Proof of life beyond our planet becomes an international moment of celebration, but the initial joy of the scientists becomes dread as the life form begins to develop some dangerous characteristics.

As with all horror films, the group of potential victims is faced with a variety of options. Almost all of the choices are bad and most of the actions of the crew will in retrospect seem foolish. An early mistake that supposedly can’t happen allows the life form access to a larger area of the space lab. This sequence happens so fast that it is difficult to tell exactly what happened. However, the sequence that immediately follows is the best section of the film. Astronaut Ryan Reynolds attempts to rescue his comrade from a seemingly sudden attack. Just like in “Alien” someone has to break the protocol to allow events to play out. Immediately we get a sense of the power and potential intelligence of the new life form. Just as with Alien, the use of fire is not particularly effective.  The results are gruesome and frightening in a very tense five or six minute scene. It is exactly the kind of thing you hope for in a story of this type.

It begins to feel like we are playing out the “Ten Little Indians” scenario in a horror film one more time. We are given glimpses of the personalities of the crew and one by one they will be killed by the monster. A few red herrings are set up and the plotline plays them out reasonably well for a while. The visual effects of the activities on the station and the movement of the creature are very disturbing and effective. The actions of stars Jake Gyllenhaal , Rebecca Ferguson, and the rest of the cast, sometimes are heroic, sometimes lucky and occasionally clever. For most of the ride we get the kinds of action and suspense that we paid our money for. Just as I thought last year’s “The Shallows” was a reasonably entertaining variation of the “Jaws” concept, I found this to be a pretty effective variant on “Alien”. That is until we get to the Ian Malcolm moment.

[Potential spoilers. We wary of proceeding].

In “Jurassic Park”, the character of Ian Malcolm explains very simply that  “If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh… well, there it is. …”Life” finds a way.” We might be lead to believe that this is a description of the science team, and that gives us the rooting interest that an audience will need. Unfortunately just as most of the characters make a mistake  or bad choice along the way, just as we think the writers responsible for “Deadpool” and “Zombieland”  are about to show that they can find a way the make “Life” work, …they choose poorly. The twist suckerpunch at the end of the film destroys most of the goodwill the film built up for me. There were a lot of other options that could have been more satisfying, but no, the film makers go for a big finish and they flop.

There will be people out there who like the choice made at the end, I think those people are wrong. It denies the value of most of what we saw for the opening hour and forty minutes of the film. I saw this coming as soon as a sequence continues past a natural stopping place. I guess I could do what some folks do, step out at that point, or turn the movie off before the finale. That’s not in my nature. Which is why, like Sky Masterson I say, “Daddy, I got cider in my ear.”

I saw a headline a couple of weeks ago that declared the movie star dead. That proclamation was based on the disappointing box office opening of this film. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt have had great success in films in the last few years. Lawrence has arguably been the most bankable star, man or woman, since the start of the Hunger Games series, and Pratt starred in the colossus “Jurassic World” and “Guardians of the Galaxy”. Their pairing may have been the reason this film finally got a greenlight after years in development hell. The lower than expected returns are supposedly an indicator that star power can”t save a movie. The truth is, a movie succeeds or fails for many reasons, and while the star may be one of those reasons, there are usually others. The weakness of this films performance should not be unjustly laid at the feet of the two leads.

“Passengers” is sold to us as a love story in space. The trailers make the film look like an adventure with the star crossed lovers battling to save themselves and the ship they are traveling on. I’m going to avoid spoilers as usual, but I will say that there is a twist in this story that is much darker and deeper than the film clips suggest. Maybe this is not a great movie, but it was better than I expected and the production values are top notch so I think I can recommend it to people who like science fiction and a lot of drama thrown in.

The provocative part of the story occurs for reasons that audiences will understand but may be horrified by. There is an interesting “what would you do? question at the heart of the film. The follow up question of how to handle the choice that is made is less complex because the story takes a very traditional turn into action tension and drama. The second act of the film is where all of the real emotion is and when the story veers back to the usual plot points, there is less that is interesting about it. For the vast majority of the movie, the two leads are the sole human characters on the ship. Michael Sheen, who is great, does have a side part to play, but he essentially is a tool for exposition and philosophy to be engorged in out loud. Lawrence and Pratt have to sell the human elements. I thought their chemistry was solid and that they made a somewhat believable couple under the circumstances.

 The failure of this movie to connect with audiences may have more to do with marketing than anything else. The trailers and ads ignore the real conflict of the film entirely and focus on the romance and adventure. There is a hint of a secret plot but that is a red herring, every shot with Lawrence Fishburne and Andy Garcia in it is misleading to the audience. Garcia must have a fantastic agent to get billing and paid for his contribution to the film. I suspect there may have been more of the story that got trimmed, and in the long run that is probably best.

 

 

The appearance of  Fishburne in the film, signals the start of the last section of the movie and a return to standard action adventure activity.  The idea that a solo engineer and a well read but not expert passenger, can handle the issues that crop up is a little hard to swallow, but since the whole idea of the film is hard to swallow to begin with I guess I can live with it. The action beats are not surprising but the special effects work is solid and there is one final twist that does pay off from the earlier section. In essence it helps redeem the film and make it a bit more worthy.  “Passengers” is not an essential film but it is entertaining and it should make for a good date night film for all those future “Netflix and Chill” evenings ahead.

Arrival

Well, the title of this film could easily be announcing the start of the awards season as well as first contact with aliens. Amy Adams is a front-runner for acting honors and the film has an outside chance at being included on a honer list of nominees if the voting works out right. The last film I saw was the Mel Gibson directed “Hacksaw Ridge and along with this movie, we are now getting to the meat of the quality film season. “Arrival” is a cerebral science fiction film that manages to build tension with almost no violence at all, and it ponders some interesting questions about the nature of the planet and our future. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” from 1951 raised many of the same questions and used a similar style of tension to hold us in it’s thrall. “Arrival” has a story that is much different but themes that are similar and a tone that mirrors that sixty-five year old film precisely. We probably need that sort of message every half century or so.

Louise Banks is a linguist, who is recruited by the government to lead a team trying to communicate with the occupants of an alien craft that is located in one of twelve spots around the globe. The American team is working in Montana, a location that is remote enough to keep millions of people away, by also central enough that the whole country might feel threatened by the ship’s presence. If you remember the cover story used in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you know that there might very well need to be secrecy when a first contact event takes place. The “X-Files” made the notion of secrecy a paranoid environment for intrigue, but this movie confronts the reality of what such an event would do to the planet. Panic, fear, riots and economic disruption of our way of life would be inevitable. The film shows these things only as news background though. The focus is not on how the social fabric of civilization might be torn by such an occurrence, but rather how it might be responded to by the leadership and scientific personnel that we trust.

I have a casual interest in linguistics as it relates to human communication. My problem is that I have no facility with language or patience with mathematics. So I am an outsider looking in on the process that was being explored here. I understood parts of it but frequently felt as if I should be getting more because after all, I am a communications person. Jeremy Renner is Adam’s counterpart from the math end of the team. As Ian Donnelly, he works with Louise to solve the puzzles of an alien language so that we as a planet can figure out whether to embrace the contact or fear it. The two of them have some great scenes where they in essence are acting against a screen, much like a giant aquarium, hoping to find a path and pattern to the linguistic puzzle. Adams must emote to light and early on through a hazmat suit. Inevitably, in order to make breakthroughs, the contact will have to be closer. In “Darmok”an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the Captain must manage to communicate with a species that uses only metaphor. As complicated as that might be, this film quadruples the challenge because the communication issues involve four dimensions, and we ultimately discover that the key to understanding is in the dimension we have the least ability at the moment to function in.

There is a prologue sequence that at first seems to be setting up our main character. That five minute section establishes Adams as a person, but there is far more going on here than we first suspect. I always avoid spoilers but I feel safe in saying that the devastating sequence, nearly as effective as the opening of the film “Up” will be understood in greater depth as the movie goes on. Amy Adams is wonderful as she goes through a nightmare scenario, but also as she relives it in several spots in the film. In addition to the moments of wonder that she impresses us with, there are expressions of pain and memory that are just as significant. This film is very nicely put together by director Denis Villenevue, to give us a non-linear story that we don’t even realize is happening in front of us. There are however a few clues as we go through the film. The picture window that looks out on the property that Adams experiences the prologue events through, is nearly identical in shape and background as the window in the alien vessel. The disconcerting gravity and physics of entering the alien ship are similar to the distortion that comes in a dream or memory.

The music of the film is oppressive without being dour, and that gives the story a feeling of expectation that the visuals also live up to. It is a science fiction film, but not one based on spectacle. The ships are simple, the vision of technology is interesting and the alien design is not anthropomorphic but it is not frightening in the way we see in most films about invaders from another world. The thing that works the best in the story from my point of view is the depiction of human uncertainty. The various countries that have contact with the pods communicate through a network, but they also disengage and keep secrets. There are no “bad” guys per se, rather there are people making the best decision they can with the information available to them. The Chinese General who appears to be turning the contact into a conflict, is simply acting in the best interests of humanity as he sees it. The problem is that communication with the aliens is not the only communication problem that the governments and scientists face. Humans are limited in their ability to frame information by their experience. It takes a whole new kind of experience to change any perceptions.

There is not much humor in the film but there is a great deal of humanity. Not everything will be explained by the resolution of the story. There are blind spots and questions about how any of this could work. Having seen “Interstellar” for a second time just a few weeks ago, reminds me that there are tough questions that are hard to answer when you get to theoretical physics. I will say that I hope the answer to one of those questions is in fact a piece of humor found in the movie. I now want to check out the places in the world that Sheena Easton had a big hit on the radio in 1980.