It’s not time-travel, it’s inversion. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet sets out to redefine what cinema can do with time as a story-telling device and while it’s groundbreaking stuff, it’s also incredibly confusing. Don’t worry, we’ll keep this spoiler-free! Sure, it’s not time-travel in the traditional sense, but it pushes back and forth in the film’s timeline with extraordinary flair. It’s no secret that Nolan is a huge James Bond fan and while it’s shown in his previous previous projects (the skyhook scene in The Dark Knight is pure Thunderball) it’s never been more prevalent than in Tenet. Secret organizations, evil Russian oligarchs, sharply dressed agents and a race against time (sort of) to save the world.
First thing’s first. John David Washington’s charming Protagonist (no really, we never learn his name) is a powerful force that constantly propels us forwards (and backwards) through the story. There are no rookie antics here, as he’s already an incredibly talented operative. Once he’s drawn into the world of this quantum cold war in an attempt to stop armageddon, he proves just how effective he really is. Washington’s stuntwork in Tenet is nothing short of incredible. It takes some skill to fight as if you’re moving backwards through time, that’s for sure. And once he pulls Robert Pattinson’s Neil into the mix, it’s even more entertaining as the pair’s rapport makes for a brilliantly layered dynamic. The charismatic operatives are a joy to watch as they carefully navigate throughout the globetrotting story, but it would it really be a Christopher Nolan film if the leads aren’t left in an open-ended situation where anything is possible? (We’re looking at you, Inception, Interstellar, The Prestige and The Dark Knight Rises…)
But as the two investigate inverted ammunition, something that leads them to Kenneth Brannagh’s Andrei Sator, Tenet dumps huge chunks of information to the audience, spoon-feeding them on how this dangerous technology works. By the film’s’s mid-point, Christopher Nolan feels he’s given you enough to go on, stops leading you with exposition and throws the audience head-first into an inverted war to figure it all out for themselves. Luckily, these exposition-filled conversations are usually scattered with Nolan’s typical sarcastic jabs to make them land easier. He doesn’t ask you to keep up, but drags you along through his signature non-linear style of filmmaking to put the pieces together. And yes, it’s certainly confusing, there’s no denying that. However, seeing certain characters or moments come together and assembling the puzzle for yourself is incredibly satisfying.
It’s not all time-inversion and superspies. All good science-fiction should tell a very human tale wrapped up in a fantastical setting, and here, the focus is very much on Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat. She’s the estranged wife of Kenneth Brannagh’s villainous Andrei Sator. At its core, Tenet examines domestic abuse and the desperation of a woman trapped in a horrific and heartbreaking circumstance as she’s faced with an impossible choice. So while it is a grand experience, Tenet isn’t afraid to just use a single, toxic dynamic to keep the stakes high, all while inverting time to its own ends.
Debicki’s performance immediately connects with the audience, and although she’s a damsel-in-distress on numerous occasions, Kat has her own agency and her own arc that feels completely justified. There’s a significant part of her story that feels a little brushed over, which might have helped keep the audience on edge more than they already are, but in a film with so many moving parts, it isn’t surprising that it isn’t explored further. The other half of her storyline is down to Brannagh’s terrifying villain, Sator. He’s a constantly chilling presence due to his nihilistic view of the world as he communes with the future. His motivation seems a bit basic and even a little unfounded, but he’s clearly a toxic individual. He’s got some inventive torture methods, I’ll give him that.
Speaking of moving parts, Tenet also has the DNA of a solid heist movie and definitely shares some connective tissue with Nolan’s previous work like Inception (no, it’s not a sequel, don’t worry). And that element sets up some of the biggest practical set pieces that audiences will have seen in a long time. It’s no wonder it’s being billed as a science-fiction epic, because it feels truly grand. The airport sequence is stunning, because the way the director and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema move the camera through that environment is so visceral. Tenet just keeps getting bigger throughout the course of the story, constantly one-upping itself with each new sequence or fight. And just to briefly praise the opening opera sequence for a moment, it’s a stunning introduction to the world of the Protagonist. It masterfully introduces this mysterious new character in the middle of an operation, while perfectly setting up puzzle pieces to be slotted together later on in the climax.
Annoyingly, the sound mixing of the film feels below par, because at times it’s almost impossible to tell what the characters are saying. Just because they’re behind a window or communicating via walkie-talkie doesn’t excuse the fact that dialogue is lost in the incredible, booming score from Ludwig Goransson. And it has to be said: it’s possible Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is a little too confusing for its own good at times. It often lingers on one concept before whisking audiences away, barely giving them chance to piece together what’s just happened and the significance of it. Even writing this, I feel like I need to watch it again to see the full picture. So it won’t be for everyone, because it definitely gets wrapped up in the quantum physics of it all every so often. But if you can just focus on what’s being shown rather than the intricate details, it’ll be a much better experience. As a character early on in the film quips, “don’t try to understand it, feel it.”
If you love fascinating science-fiction and espionage thrillers with some incredibly tense action set-pieces and a complex storyline that will swirl around your brain long after the lights have come up, Tenet absolutely delivers.
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