Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenwriter: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branaugh
I am back! I’ve been off the grid for about a year now; anything happen while I’ve been gone? In all seriousness, the pandemic has certainly disrupted life for all of us in so many ways that are impossible to quantify. We’ve adjusted and sacrificed and pulled together to keep our families, communities, and beyond safe and healthy. As part of that, watching and reviewing movies had to take a backseat to the challenges of the new daily life. I mean I haven’t written a movie review since 1917 in 2019, which is a line that belongs in the movie I am reviewing today! Accordingly, if a movie was going to get me to crawl out of my bunker it would be one from Christopher Nolan. Especially one like this that I have to watch 100 times to still not understand it.
When the Avengers announced in the film Endgame that they were going to pull a time heist, we all chuckled at the silly little notion and enjoyed our popcorn and superheroes. But somewhere in an inverted turnstile, Christopher Nolan was sitting at a computer writing and cackling maniacally, muttering to himself, “You want a time heist? I’ll give you a time heist!” And now we have Tenet, the unequivocal time heist, sci-fi, Bond-esque, brain bending spectacle that it is.
Tenet opens with a baffling sequence depicting a terrorist attack on an opera house in Kiev where many people are dressed the same but it becomes increasingly obvious that they are very different groups of people all trying to accomplish different objectives. One of the groups is the CIA led by a character known in the film only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), who is at the opera house to secure a contact whose cover is blown and recover some plutonium that the terrorists are attempting to secure. The confusion of it all is deliberate however, and lays the foundation for the viewer by introducing some consistencies that will be explored as the film progresses.
A few things before I continue:
- I am going to attempt to avoid spoilers, but in all honesty, it is not that easy to pinpoint what is and is not a spoiler, so be warned.
- While I have gotten very good at understanding people who talk while wearing a mask, for the purposes of your enjoyment of this movie, I highly recommend you watch it with subtitles on because there are lots of masks. And if that’s not enough, the booming score by Ludwig Göransson makes much of the spoken dialogue even harder to make out.
- Don’t watch this movie unless you are comfortable making some, most or all of the following faces while trying to figure out what’s happening:
With that out of the way, let’s explore Tenet. Tenet is, as you’ve most likely noticed, the word ten forwards and backwards. That in itself introduces you to the concept of the film which is on the surface a story about the future attacking the past. Like Inception and Interstellar, Nolan’s previously most confusing films, there are layers at play. There are also lines in this movie like, “In one hour from now, they had this briefing,” which will just make your head implode in on itself. One character early in the film even says, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” These words should be on the poster because the true strength of Tenet (and most of Nolan’s films) is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. My suggestion is that you watch this movie, especially the first time, focusing on the surface layer which is a conflict between the future and the past. In the future, technology has progressed in a way that has brought on the advent of a process called inversion. Inversion or reversed entropy as it is also called is a process whereby objects and people can be inverted allowing them to reverse in the trajectory of time like a salmon heading upstream. Inversion is tricky business though as it is achieved through radiation and so inverted objects carry with them radioactivity and inverted people are physically unable to breathe the air and must bring their own oxygen, hence all the masks.
The Protagonist is eventually inducted into a covert group of special forces who use the code word Tenet and are actively fighting this new “Cold War” where inversion from the future is preparing an attack on the present. He is joined by British agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson) to thwart an arms dealer who leads them to the real big baddie in this film, a Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branaugh) with lots of money and, you guessed it, ties to the future! The Protagonist and Neil spend the rest of the film in thrilling style attempting to stop Sator from gathering the weapons he needs to complete what he calls “the algorithm,” which he is able to gather thanks to knowledge from the future.
What follows is a head-scratcher to say the least, but a wild ride as only Nolan can produce. The set pieces are second to none, and scenes like the Kiev Opera siege and the climactic battle are truly spectacular. Most notably the Oslo airport scene, which is breathtaking, is done practically and with almost no special effects! Come for the action scenes, stay for the story is what I’m saying.
Once you get the hang of this film, there is so much to analyze and explore. Nolan drops plenty of clues and weaves a narrative that may or may not make sense, but definitely follows its own rules. Once turnstiles start showing up, buckle up for some of the most confusing cinema you’ve ever seen.
Tenet is still event movie making in the style that Nolan has grown accustomed and the challenges put forth by the narrative are not lazy or purposefully divisive; they are surgically inserted with great care and precision. At the risk of sounding cliché, Tenet is a film that must be seen twice. The film asks a lot from its audience in terms of attention to detail, navigating its audio hurdles, and its extended running time, but if you are up for that kind of commitment, it will be a rewarding watch. B
PS – I’m hoping the new year brings more love, health and happiness to all along with more new movies and of course more reviews from The People’s Critic.
Tenet is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes.
I couldn’t agree more about Tenet requiring multiple viewings. Nolan deliberately obscuring expository dialogue certainly doesn’t assist in comprehending what is already a complex plot. I am growing weary of this gimmick. That said, on my second viewing (aided by a dialogue boost setting on my tv) my opinion of the film dramatically increased. It goes without question that Tenet accomplishes what it set out to do, however I still wish it had a little more heart. Nolan has managed to incorporate strong characters and writing into his complex interweaving plots before, so I still can’t help but feel that Tenet was somewhat lacking in what I expect from Nolan. I hope he hasn’t taken criticism regarding Interstellar’s bold assertion that “love is the only thing that transcends time and space” so hard that he has become callous.
Interstellar is Nolan’s highwater mark in my opinion, and you can poke those same holes in that film as you do with Tenet – that being the inclusion of strong, yet interchangeable characters. Many will cite The Dark Knight, Inception, or even Memento as his best because of their emphasis on character, but with Interstellar Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation even at the risk of alienation. I think he’s attempting the same with Tenet only with diminishing returns in some areas that you have correctly identified. Thanks for the comment, Phil!