In 2006 Christopher Nolan asked us if we were watching closely, now fourteen years later he’s making sure we still are. Tenet requires every ounce of attention you can muster, and blanking at the wrong moment could leave you lost for everything left to come. This is what he does though, and it always has been. Nolan doesn’t just make films; he makes spectacles of the highest order. For all its ruthlessness his auteurism is as distinct and audacious as the other elite of the filmmaking craft, and although he’s used his talents to greater effect in the past, Tenet is a welcome reminder of the genius of his method.
No director thinks as much of humanity as Nolan does. Almost all his films speak to the power of individuals to transcend perceived reality and achieve great things. He deals with grand abstract themes traversing dreams and dimensions and yet presents them in such a way that there is always a human who can master them, or at the very least keep them at bay. His obsessions don’t lie explicitly within the supernatural, more aptly they lie in humanities ability to traverse it. In Inception, this meant experiencing dreams as a reality and Cobb venturing deeper into them than ever before. In Interstellar, it manifests as a fourth dimension of human creation that allows Coop to send signals back through time. As for Tenet, the “Nolanness” here is the ability to move forwards while moving backwards.
To explain this is to explain the movie so I’ll begin with our protagonist, simply named “The Protagonist” (John David Washington). He’s an operative who proves himself worthy of knowing two things. The first is a gesture composed of intertwining the fingers on both hands and spreading the palms, and the second is simply a word, “Tenet”. Combining these two things is described to us as something that will open many doors, not all of them the right ones. Armed with these mysteries The Protagonist begins to investigate a strange kind of ammunition he’s been encountering in the field, one with the ability to defy physics. It turns out massive amounts of concentrated radiation is causing objects to reverse the flow of time, instead of moving forward as we do, they are moving backwards, and if bullets can be “inversed” as they describe it, then any manner of larger and more dangerous objects can too.
One man controls this phenomenon, a man with the ability to contact the future and have things sent back to the past. He is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch who suddenly came into his riches despite his low-class upbringing. Rapidly it becomes clear that his intentions with the new technology are nefarious and contain world-ending ramifications. In short, he needs to be stopped. The Protagonist is then left with a fight against, and through, time itself and has two main companions to help him. The first is Neil (Robert Pattinson) a resourceful man who knows too much and explains too little, and the second is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) Andrei’s emotionally battered wife who proves to be the only means of getting near her husband.
That is as clear as Tenet can be laid out without unnecessary confusion or blatant spoilers, and therein lies its most significant problem because Tenet is so much more than that. Countless lines pass with great difficulty to comprehend them, and it leaves you grasping for essential pieces of context and explanation. Often a sensation arises that the film is passing by without inspiring any great feeling or leaving any imprint. Here is when Tenet is at its weakest, its an oddly stubborn and uncompromising beast you desperately want to understand but can’t, because frankly, it won’t let you.
However, the film has more than enough saving graces, and the action is its first and most prominent. Nolan is known for his adrenaline-fuelled set pieces, and Tenet has some of his best ever, many of which play simultaneously in reverse and forward motion. There’s nothing quite like the experience of feeling a cinema shake during a Nolan movie, and as this time-defying combat occurs, it’s impossible not to be enthralled. Ludwig Göransson had impossibly big shoes to fill in the absence of legendary composer and long-time Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, and he delivered expertly. These sequences ensure even the most lost of viewers will be in awe for a few moments, and even with a lack of full comprehension, their pulses will race.
The performances are the films other triumphs. Even with what is a rather one-track role, Washington has never felt more like a superstar, proving he is just as at home in high-budget blockbusters as he is in indie films. Robert Pattinson is every bit as charismatic as he has proven he is of late, and this is another welcome addition to his recent homerun filled filmography. Their two largest co-stars steal the show, however, and without them, the film would be void of emotional stakes. Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki have the rare kind of chemistry that speaks to genuine hatred. Their characters have a relationship based on blackmail and manipulation, and when they go at each other, they go hard. Together they make for an irresistible cocktail of villainy and despair, and when all is said and done, it will be them whom you remember the most.
For better or for worse Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s ultimate puzzle. Those with the constitution to unwaveringly pay attention to its secrets will be rewarded with an epic tale found somewhere beyond time. Those without may just have to get by on the visual achievements alone.
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