Christopher Nolan’s infatuation with the inner workings of time has been at the forefront of his filmography since his very first feature, 1998’s Following, a film told out of order. Nolan’s breakout hit, Memento, a film told in reverse chronological order, was a breakthrough in narrative storytelling. Even his WW2 epic, Dunkirk, was told in three intersecting timelines unfolding over a day, a week and an hour. Finally, with his latest film, the high-octane action thriller, Tenet, Nolan takes his obsession to a whole new level.
To say you’ve never seen a film like Tenet, is to put it mildly. Imagine the mind-twisting narrative of Memento mixed with the action spectacle of Inception, but through an insane acid trip of quantum mechanics and espionage. It’s best to skip any description of the plot as its secrecy is part of the fun, but also to describe what happens in this film would be a daunting task for anyone. Essentially, Nolan treats Tenet as his homage to the Connery/Moore era Bond films, with some heavily overt nods, but through his massive-scale genre lens.
The intense cerebral intricacies of the plot are bound to be too much for some film-goers, especially given this is likely the first time most will have trekked to the cinema in at least 6 months, but for those who are able to follow Nolan’s gargantuan narrative, there are plenty of details to relish in.
John David Washington stars as a character we only know as “The Protagonist”. Washington, in his first starring role since 2018’s BlackKklansman, makes huge marks as an action star with a demanding physicality not seen in most a-list action films. Sure, we have Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham and Henry Cavill as bruting forces on the big-screen, but Washington’s closest comparisons come from the likes of Keanu Reeves, Charlize Theron and even Tom Cruise. The swift, precise agility in Washington’s performance is a sight to behold, especially in some of the film’s more outlandish action sequences.
Robert Pattinson is perfect as Washington’s best friend and partner, Neil. Nolan perfectly utilizes Pattinson’s suave charisma and impeccable charm to help deliver some of the films most thrilling moments, but also some of the funniest. Both Washington and Pattinson have an irresistible chemistry with one another, filling in some of the emotional void left in Nolan’s screenplay.
Elizabeth Debicki, who gives an expectedly great performance here, falls victim to the usual Nolan “femme fatale” archetype. Debicki’s “Kat” is the least interesting of those characters in Nolan’s oeuvre. The role is more than a damsel-in-distress, but if you’re familiar with Nolan’s past work, you’ll see right through the character.
Reuniting since their first collaboration in Dunkirk, Kenneth Branagh heartily chews the scenery — often a bit too much — as the films villain, Andrei Sator. The character is derivative of the more cartoonish Bond villains, but Nolan does make attempts at fleshing him out as more than a stereotypical baddie. It doesn’t amount to much, but Branagh is engaging nevertheless.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson is given his best role since his Golden-Globe winning turn in Nocturnal Animals as a fellow soldier aiding Washington and Pattinson in their quest to prevent the possible extinction of the human race. Johnson proves that with more personality and character than his role in 2014’s Godzilla, he really can be a compelling star. Usual Nolan cohort and Oscar-winner Michael Caine makes a brief but welcome appearance as a secret figure in Washington’s quest — and the audiences’ for that matter — to understand the complex, trippy world he is about to embark in.
Tenet is filled to the brim with exhilarating spectacle that only Christopher Nolan knows how to deliver. This is some of the auteur’s finest action set pieces of his career up to this point. Shot by DP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk) who utilizes a perfect blend of 70mm and Imax film, Nolan shakes up his normal eye of action filmmaking with a mixture of styles.
The opening sequence, set in a Ukrainian opera house, calls to mind the heist sequences in Inception and of course, the opening to The Dark Knight. An early, bruising hand-to-hand combat sequence in a restaurant kitchen feels like Nolan’s nod to Paul Greengrass or even the early works of Jackie Chan, bewilderingly shot handheld with Imax cameras. By the time rapper Travis Scott’s signature distorted croons — from the films original song, “The Plan” — hang over the films show-stopping freeway chase that gives The Matrix Reloaded and The Raid 2 a run for their money, you’ll feel as if the action movie gods have descended upon your theater. Imagine the rotating hallway scene from Inception, but x10.
Replacing longtime Nolan collaborator, Hans Zimmer, is Oscar winner, Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther). Like most Nolan films, the score doubles as the films pulse, and boy does Goransson make that pulse pound. Taking a more electric approach compared to Zimmer’s usual orchestral work, Goransson employs the use of electric guitars, synths, 808s and even the occasional Inception “BWAAM” to drive home the intensity. The one downside to the score is its place in the Imax sound mix which occasionally drowns out some of the films more important exposition. I can’t speak on how it sounds in standard 5.1/7.1 theater set-ups, but in my Imax screening, I flat out couldn’t understand some of the dialogue that was being spoken between characters even in some basic settings.
Given the films high-concept idea of time inversion mixed with Nolan’s dedication to practical, in-camera effects along with breathtaking editing from Jennifer Lame (Marriage Story, Hereditary), you’ll want to get loss in the craft on display, but Nolan makes his audience work overtime in order to follow along. For much of Tenet‘s first half, the audience is deliberately kept in the dark on many of the films basic details, likely causing frustration for some. This also makes it harder to care about certain characters, some of whom are already thin, creating a distance that isn’t closed until some of the films final minutes.
When the thrilling second half kicks in and things are finally explained, you might still be trying to catch up while Nolan has already moved on to another mind-bending idea that requires even more careful processing. Convoluted is too easy a word to slap on this, as everything is eventually laid out on the table and does make sense — I think — Nolan is just asking you to take a big leap of faith with him and that leap isn’t always easy.
Tenet is an overwhelming experience through-and-through, but in the best possible way. When you buy your ticket, it should come with two, because one viewing simply isn’t enough; granted we are still experiencing a pandemic. Some of the characters and expository dialogue may be below his writing standards, but the perfectly paced and grandiose Tenet showcases Christopher Nolan at the top of his unparalleled craft.