I’d estimate that through half of Tenet’s 150-minutes running time, I was uttering the three iconic words that sound like: “What the chuck?” Tenet often left me confused, dazed and shocked, but almost always in a good way.
This latest film by auteur Christopher Nolan, who has made Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012), The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014), and Dunkirk (2017), is probably not up there with his best work. I say ‘probably’ because it might age better on a repeat viewing. Still, it’s a must-watch, especially when compared to the generic films that end up at the cinema every month.
I’m going to keep the plot summary brief for two reasons. The first is that I want to avoid spoilers. The second is that I’m not confident that I fully understood the story, and I’ve breezed through his most complex films and complex films in general. The third is that this publication doesn’t have enough pages to discuss the plot.
So, let’s just say that Tenet is a sci-fi spy film that plays deeply with the concept of inverting time. It stars John David Washington as a CIA agent we only know as the Protagonist, Robert Pattinson as Neil, his agency handler, and Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, an art auctioneer. She happens to be the estranged wife of a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who can communicate with the future.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is confusing and hugely mind-boggling, but is still well worth watching
In typical Nolan fashion, the characterisation is paper-thin. The Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar were exceptions to this rule, of course. Except, the characterisation in Tenet is even thinner than usual. The performers have little to work with, except Debicki. Meanwhile, the film’s lead, Washington, doesn’t even have a name. All we know is that he loves Debicki, and is motivated by saving her and saving the world. Despite the one-dimensional characterisation, the performances are excellent. Despite the characters being mere vehicles for the film to dazzle us with its visuals, I felt emotionally invested in them.
The visuals in this film are utterly spectacular. Beautifully shot by Hoyte van Hoytema on IMAX and 70mm film, the film looks gorgeous on the big screen. Like a typical Nolan film, it features all the muted colours that draw your eyes to the action. Two scenes, in particular, are some of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. One involves a fight in a hallway. Another plays imaginatively with the concept of time, where one character is moving forward in time while the other is moving backwards. I had the same feeling watching some of the scenes as I did the first time I watched The Matrix (1999), before it was ruined by the poor sequels and parodies.
Unfortunately, not everything about Tenet is lovable. The storytelling could have been better, but not in the way you think. The film does a great job of explaining how the flow of time is manipulated. Yet, the rest of the story is needlessly convoluted.
The other problem with Tenet is the sound. Now, you may have noticed something odd about the sound mixing in other Nolan films, where the sound effects and music drown out the dialogue. This is not the incompetent staff at your theatre. It’s a deliberate decision by Nolan. In Tenet, it’s excessive. Many exchanges of dialogue are challenging to hear as they’re drowned out by the sudden sounds of Ludwig Göransson’s otherwise good score.
Despite these shortcomings, Tenet is a good film, especially for a spectacular final act that will leave you breathless. It’s so good that many will risk Covid-19 for a chance to watch Tenet in all its glory before it leaves the cinema.
Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 13th, 2020