Note: Darren is based in Ireland, where cinemas have reopened and it is (relatively) safe to attend screenings. This Tenet review should not be considered an endorsement of going to the cinema; please consult a local or national public health professional before attending. Take care of yourselves out there.
Tenet is a joyous celebration of the blockbuster experience.
As the first (and possibly only) major theatrical release of Hollywood’s summer that wasn’t, Tenet carries a lot of weight. It is difficult to separate Christopher Nolan’s latest film from the cacophony around it, which works to both the movie’s benefit and its detriment. There is no escaping the movie’s placement as an attempt to resuscitate the theatrical industry, just as there’s no avoiding the fact that Tenet is opening when it’s still not safe for people to go back to the theater.
As with a lot of Nolan’s films, the central conceit that drives Tenet is a very straightforward high concept. The anonymous protagonist (John David Washington) is a former CIA operative who finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue involving the reversal of entropy. Experts have discovered objects – bullets, watches, cogs – that seem to be moving backwards rather than forward through time. Our hero is tasked with finding out who is behind this and what they want.
The idea of the reversal of the flow of time feels like a logical extension of Nolan’s core themes as a writer and director, his fascination with the distortion and manipulation of time’s passage. As one might expect given the director’s sensibility, this reversal is presented as an existential threat that is likened to the atomic bomb. If time can be broken, then reality will follow suit. The film’s thematic occupations position it neatly in Nolan’s oeuvre, alongside Memento, Inception, and Interstellar.
Like a lot of Nolan’s high concepts, Tenet is perhaps best understood as a metaphor for cinematic craft. Many of Nolan’s narratives are reverse-engineered, designed from the outside in. His first film, Following, was written as a film noir because Nolan couldn’t afford color film stock. Batman Begins essentially works inwards to justify the psychology of Batman. Nolan has acknowledged that at least part of his motivation in making Inception was to narratively justify the use of slow motion.
It’s no coincidence that the film’s early exposition finds a scientist named Laura (Clémence Poésy) explaining the concept through video footage, rewinding and fast-forwarding footage to demonstrate the reversal of time as an optical illusion. There are moments when the central narrative concept of Tenet seems to exist purely as justification for a neat visual trick, the idea of action scenes that feature characters moving backwards and forwards through them simultaneously.
It is tempting to call this an indulgence, but it’s earned. With James Cameron devoting himself to his Avatar sequels, Nolan is the only director working in Hollywood who has the creative clout to produce a movie on this scale that is this esoteric and this original. Only a few weeks ago, Interstellar became the first wholly original live-action blockbuster to cross $700M at the global box office since Gravity. There’s only one director out there who could try something like this, and it’s Nolan.
On the level of spectacle, Tenet is a tour de force. Nolan’s preference for practical effects lends Tenet a tactile quality that is largely absent from contemporary blockbuster cinema. Even before the film gets to its central narrative conceit, the stunt work and set pieces are breathtaking – a daring raid on a Mumbai penthouse, a theatrical distraction at an airport tax haven. Once “inversion” comes into play, the action scenes are utterly unlike anything in modern cinema. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema gives the film a crisp, clean look.
Nolan has a deep-seated affection for the James Bond franchise, even acknowledging he would “definitely” like to direct one at some point. There are shades of the James Bond franchise to be found in his Dark Knight trilogy and particularly Inception. If Inception took some of its cues from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Tenet borrows a few setups from License to Kill, particularly in its characterization of the villainous Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh).
Tenet looks like a particularly polished Bond film, unfolding in a world of expensive suits, luxury yachts, and characters who alternate between throwing down in fancy hotel kitchens and driving speed boats in their spare time. John David Washington brings an easy charm and swagger to the lead role, a deadpan wit and sense of fun. Ludwig Göransson’s score occasionally layers a twangy electric guitar over the bass-laden soundscapes for that proper James Bond aesthetic.
As usual, Nolan largely trusts his cast to breathe life into a concept that could easily seem academic. Although it’s still early in his career, Washington exudes movie star charisma. Robert Pattinson plays well as a foil. Branagh offers a particularly grubby and unsettling take on the classic Bond villain archetype. However, it is Elizabeth Debicki who walks away with the film as its beating heart. Her trapped art dealer is the movie’s most complex and compelling character, its human core.
As with a lot of Nolan films, it’s easy to get lost in the film’s central conceit. There will undoubtedly be an entire YouTube industrial complex dedicated to explaining the core mechanics of inversion. However, ironically given Nolan’s reputation as an unemotional filmmaker, the best advice comes from Laura: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.” Nolan’s films are smart, but that’s not their defining attribute. He’s not making Primer. Nolan’s gift has always been making high concepts accessible.
Tenet fits neatly alongside this summer’s other films about the “unraveling” of time – Palm Springs, Bill and Ted Face the Music, I’m Thinking of Ending Things. These were all produced before the current lockdown and its warping of time, but which speak perfectly to it. Tenet imagines a temporal “cold war” in which the past and the future grapple for control of the present. Given current battles over who gets to write history and how that history shapes our future, Tenet feels like the perfect movie for this moment.
Tenet isn’t Nolan’s masterpiece. Its concept is a little too high, and many of its central characters are a little too broadly drawn. However, it is a triumph of blockbuster filmmaking, a uniquely ambitious action movie, and a snapshot of this strange moment.