On paper, it’s ridiculous to describe a $200m blockbuster as a “cult” film. Yet the phrase seems kind of apt when we’re talking about Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s tortuous 2020 thriller about a world in which people have discovered the ability to reverse the flow of time. Released in cinemas just months into the Covid pandemic – sandwiched awkwardly between lockdowns – Tenet was the biggest flop of the popular filmmaker’s career, making just $365.3m globally. More than this, though, the film also enjoyed a dubious reception from critics. It embodied all of Nolan’s worst tics. It was confusing. Emotionally antiseptic. Loosely sexist. It was an intricate puzzle box with nothing inside. Or so most everybody said.
Now, roughly three years after the film’s release – and a few months after Nolan’s coruscating comeback Oppenheimer – Tenet has made its way onto Netflix and shot up the film rankings. In recent years, the streaming service has demonstrated an uncanny ability to unearth hidden gems (or, some might say, to resuscitate old dreck). In an era when many people have stopped buying and renting DVDs, many people’s viewing choices rely wholly on the comings and goings of Netflix’s catalogue. It’s the perfect context for a film like Tenet, a big, expensive-looking blockbuster that many people would have missed when it first came out. Next to Netflix’s assortment of drab, cheap-looking original films, it stands out as a work of high and impressive grandeur. Whisper it – or don’t, lest people whinge about bad sound mixing – but Tenet may end up one of the decade’s most enduring blockbusters.
If you watch enough films, you start to grow weary seeing the same stuff over and over. The language of cinema is vast and multifarious, but contemporary blockbusters tend to use only a very limited vocabulary. For all its flaws and pretensions, Tenet contains countless moments that feel new, and original. The complaints about Nolan’s coldness, the film’s spidery self-indulgence, are valid but beside the point. For a film that’s positively bursting at the seams with plot, Tenet is best enjoyed as a work of images and ideas.