IMPORTANT PSA: The best thing you can do in the current situation to satisfy your film fix is to watch movies at home, or at a drive-in if you have one near you. Don’t go to a cinema if it’s not safe to do so.
With maybe one or two exceptions, no director gets a crowd like Christopher Nolan. Obviously the man who directed and co-wrote two of the best comic-book movies ever made (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, for those counting) is going to have a fair bit of commercial cachet for the rest of his career, but the monumental commercial and cultural success of Inception a decade ago showed a clear demand for his brand of cerebral storytelling on a blockbuster scale, beyond the need for a major cinematic franchise in which to dress his themes and theories.
In the wake of a global pandemic and a shutdown of pretty much everything then, perhaps Nolan is the man to encourage people back to the big screens. At least, that’s what Warner Bros. seem to be counting on.
Tenet is the eleventh film directed and written by Nolan, using his tried and trusted method of taking a high-concept action movie, and saturating it in as many ideas as possible. This time, he combines the generic conventions of the spy thriller with time travel. Nolan has a knack for non-linear narratives, and after playing with time as a concept in Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk to name but a few, it seemed inevitable that he would end up making an out-and-out time-travel film.
Tenet‘s main conceit is the fictional process of “inversion”: the reversal of an object’s entropy to make it move backwards in time. The film’s main antagonist Sator, played with thickly-accented gusto by Kenneth Branagh, is trying to weaponise the process, seemingly with an apocalyptic endgame.
Of course, the good guys want none of that, and it’s up to John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist to save the day, under the watchful eyes of the shadowy organisation “Tenet”. He’s deftly aided by Robert Pattinson playing a man named Neil, and Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, the long-suffering estranged wife of Branagh’s character.
On paper, the characters don’t sound incredibly well developed, and the often clunky exposition and dialogue are too often saved by the charisma and on-screen chemistry between the three leads. Debicki’s role in particular is entirely thankless; her job in the film is essentially to get captured a lot, and to worry about the welfare of her son, sometimes in the same scene. By the grace of her actor, Kat always feels more formidable when on screen than that description would suggest, but really Debicki deserved to be more involved than in playing a character who constantly needed to be rescued, up to and including the film’s ending.
It’s a surprising shortcoming for Nolan as a writer; his strengths may lie more in the bigger-picture storytelling and high concepts, but his characters to date have always had a level of depth enough for audiences to engage and find something relatable with them, even when those characters’ circumstances are particularly outlandish. In Tenet, it never feels like that engagement goes beyond an admiration for the great performances on display from Washington, Pattinson, Debicki et al.
Where Tenet flourishes however is in its set pieces, and Nolan, with the trusty eye of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and some sharp editing by Jennifer Lame, has concocted some genuinely astonishing sequences. Nolan has a reputation for favouring practical effects when shooting his films, and without undermining the work put into the apparently 300 VFX shots throughout Tenet, it’s the physicality of Nolan’s films which sets his work apart. Combined with a beautiful score by Ludwig Göransson, the film is an audio-visual smorgasbord.
That said, the often touted complaint from some audiences of inaudible dialogue is an issue at times, with characters often contending with masks, ship engines and the aforementioned score to be heard clearly. It’s most prevalent through the film’s particularly exposition-heavy first act, which threatens to leave an already complicated time-travel setup feeling borderline incomprehensible.
The effect seems to be intentional, as Nolan in his script makes it clear that Tenet is not a film to be understood, but felt, to paraphrase one of Clémence Poésy’s few lines in the film. It’s an approach to storytelling which feels at odds with Nolan’s usual intricacy with his stories, but when it comes to time travel and cinema, there is precedent for a more relaxed attitude:
While the looseness doesn’t detract from Tenet when judging the film by its own merit, those expecting the intricately woven narratives of The Prestige and Inception, or the emotional odyssey of Interstellar might feel a little shortchanged. Ignoring that expectation though, Tenet is an entertaining, visually captivating action film which feels much less than its 2 and a half hour duration, and demands to be seen on the biggest screen available.
To finish on that note, it remains to be seen whether Tenet will be the film which “saves cinema”, as some on social media have proclaimed, or if it fails to convince people back into a shared auditorium. Early commercial reports suggest the film will be fine, but compared to the director’s other work, as entertaining a ride as Tenet is, it may not stand the test of time.