Despite my love for the work of filmmaker Christopher Nolan and the incredible hype around his latest movie, I wasn’t convinced that I would watch Tenet as soon as I did, even if it has been out in theatres for a week. With a global COVID-19 pandemic and safety-first mindset, my wife and I were not initially intending on going into theatres so soon, given the risks of a crowded cinema hall. However, when I checked online how bookings were at my nearest theatre and found a show that had barely anyone watching, we decided to jump at the opportunity to see Nolan’s latest action spectacle. In total there were only six of us in the theatre watching the film, which was great for our safety, but disappointing not just for the cinema business, but because in any normal year this would be exactly the kind of movie that we would demand you see on the big screen.
To roughly borrow from another sci-fi blockbuster masterpiece, I can’t really tell you what the ultra-secretive and twisty plot for Tenet is – it is a movie you need to see for yourself. Sure I can certainly provide very simplified bullet points for what unfolds onscreen but the less known about the plot beforehand the better, as how it is experienced is what makes it so good. It’s the kind of complex epic that needs to be seen multiple times to be truly understood and preferably on a screen and sound system that is as big and audacious as possible, to soak it all in.
Nolan is already known as one of the most ambitious filmmakers of his time thanks to his grandiose execution of bold ideas in a way that makes them both pleasing to cinephiles and general audiences alike. A rare skill that few filmmakers possess. And in Tenet, he may just have his most bold and ambitious film yet as he goes all out to give us some of the most inventive action scenes ever committed to celluloid. All the while wrapping our heads up in a narrative concept that will keep you challenged long after leaving the theatre.
We’ve already known that the film is layered around the concept of time inversion, where certain aspects of time travel in reverse. In typical Nolan fashion though, nothing is as simple as it seems and he blasts so many different details and inversions at you, that you will want to watch this movie more than once to understand them all. Think of how layered Inception was with its concept of dreams within a dream, and then dial that up several notches, and you should have an idea of what you are dealing with here. Nolan is the kind of director who obsesses over every detail of his films and it shows in just how meticulously engineered certain sequences are. To say more might reveal too much but let me just say that your mind will be blown at some of the action twists and the cleverness in how Nolan plays with the time inversion concept.
It’s those narrative gymnastics though that could arguably be the film’s biggest pitfall and why some of the initial reviews from the movie were so mixed. Tenet is incredibly complex, and Nolan doesn’t do the audience any favours by throwing them right into the middle of things and just hoping that they will figure out most of the details along the way. Don’t expect many exposition dumps on much of what happens. If you’re not paying careful attention, you could easily miss something significant. It’s an approach that certainly allows for some truly inversed storytelling of its own as things make more sense as the film unravels, but one that can be frustrating and easily stop you from becoming immersed into the film.
The same unfortunately can be said for many of the film’s characters, as aside from Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, we don’t really get to know too many details about who they are. Again, part of this is intentional for narrative effect, but this also means you are also unlikely to care about them either as a result. This is not to fault any of the actors though who all do a great job in bringing the story to life with Robert Pattinson (who seems to be channeling a bit of Nolan himself in appearance and mannerisms) and Kenneth Branagh’s main antagonist putting in some remarkable turns. As for the film’s lead, John David Washington, he does a solid enough job. Though perhaps Nolan is so interested in thrusting you into the middle of his story that he never allows the character – simply credited as “The Protagonist” – to develop. While Washington remains the heart of the story narratively, you feel he is merely driving the plot and moving it from one outrageous action scene to the next.
These are criticisms that could easily ruin lesser films, but when a film is as mind-blowing as this one is in execution, it only serves as a minor inconvenience. And even once the story is complete and you’re trying to unravel how its many strands are knotted together, you aren’t going to care for some of the plot holes created along the way because you will be too enthused by having experienced it all.
The actors might be the ones bringing everything to life, but this is a Nolan vehicle through and through, with his trademark creative engineering and attention to detail evident everywhere. It is the kind of film that only Nolan can pull off with a scale of action sequences that would give most other directors pause to even attempt them with CGI – here Nolan does almost everything practically in-camera. And yes, we know that one of those unbelievably practical shots is that he really crashes a Boeing airliner into a building, but that this explosive moment is one of the simpler action sequences in the movie, perhaps explains exactly how jaw-dropping the rest of it is. Thus, is the genius of the film and the man.
Technically, the film is a pure marvel, the practical visual effects are stunningly executed and its thanks to some remarkable cinematography and editing from Hoyte van Hoyema and Jennifer Lame respectively that makes all the details and time inversion twists fit as well as they do. These are backed up by a rousing score by Ludwig Goransson who blasts the senses with some tense and unsettling sonic pieces, especially in some of the film’s biggest moments. You may not like how the score takes priority in the mix over some of the dialogue (Yes, Nolan is once again doing some unconventional sound mixing) but I personally felt it made the film better for it.
Tenet is not perfect and arguably has some of the weakest characters that Nolan has ever created. However, its highly cerebral plot and outrageous action (if those are your things like they are mine) more than make up for it. In reflection, it is exactly the kind of film that was designed for the big screen cinema experience. Just a pity that 2020 has been a gigantic disaster of a year, both forwards and backwards, that even dwarfs Nolan’s efforts at fiery destruction. As a result, most people probably won’t get to experience Tenet in the premier format it deserves. And we’re okay with that. You can’t rewind time on your health.
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Last Updated: September 7, 2020