Movie Review: Tenet

My second full-on movie review in four years! Why not!
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk)
Rating: M

Before the year turned over, 2020 looked to be studded with tentpole film releases. A new James Bond movie, two big Marvel Studios releases, another wave of Disney live-action remakes, two new Pixar films, and at least one DC juggernaut. And yet for many of us out there, the promise of a new Christopher Nolan movie with another trademark timey-wimey gimmick stood above them all. Perhaps it was the ‘surefire sequel success’ vibes of most of the above, contrasting starkly with Nolan‘s stubborn refusal to leave behind practical effects, needless IMAX shots and fiercely original scripts with no concern for cinematic universes. Tenet loomed large.

Of course we all know that’s pretty far from how 2020 actually played out. Here in this current reality, most of those tentpoles have yet to see release. New movies in general have been hard to come by, matter of fact, even though streaming services have been more than willing to help out. Yet Nolan‘s reliable stubbornness has now ensured that not only is Tenet going exclusively to cinemas, it’s doing so before any other title of comparable size and hype. If Tenet looked like an imposing 2020 title before, it’s now positively monolithic. For this and many other reasons, I’ve actually written a full review. Yeah, 2020 is weird for us all.

Christopher Nolan‘s relationship with scale makes his movies quite fun to write about, but his steadily-increasing reliance on IMAX was always going to feel a bit weird if he ever decided to tell a story with a tighter, more personal scope than his recent time-dilating epics Interstellar and Dunkirk. Lo and behold; despite what some of the trailers and marketing would have you believe, Tenet is one of those stories. Indeed, given its budget, one of the most surprising things about the film is just how small the action beats are. Those going in expecting another Inception would be forgiven for thinking so given the high-concept premise, but they may leave disappointed. That film’s fifth-biggest set piece is still grander than Tenet‘s headlining grounded-plane crash from the trailers.

Don’t get me wrong, the action beats are still mightily impressive; even more so when you consider the analogue composition that gives life to much of them. Nolan and new partner in visual crime Hoyte Van Hoytema put together countless shots from footage running both forwards and backwards at the same time, and they do so seamlessly. The Nolan colour gradient is fully present and accounted for, and those IMAX shots keep the ‘event’ feel for which he has become famous, even when they’re only framing a two-person suited-up conversation. Pick a still shot from this movie and it will look as expensive as it probably was. The soundtrack is Hans Zimmer-free for the first time in a long while, but Black Panther‘s Ludwig Göransson slots right into the mold with a similar bag of sonic storytelling tricks (alongside, yes, the occasional bwaaam) and has no problems cranking the bass. My insides were shaking in the theatre on more than one occasion. It’s not a score you’re likely to forget quickly.

But a movie like Tenet is always going to have eyes on its plot before all else, and for at least a few weeks that’s certainly where mine will be. The narrative of the film is a gold-laced dream for YouTubers in the business of film analysis and I for one cannot wait to understand more of the set-up, backstory and side tendrils of this doozy (Sadly at the time of writing the movie has yet to reach any of the American channels I follow). Much like the rest of Nolan‘s filmography, the story of Tenet‘s unnamed protagonist will benefit from repeat viewings – not to mention the option for sweet sweet subtitles. But regardless of what rapid-fire pieces of dialogue I did and did not catch amid the narrative chaos, the immensely relieving bottom line is that the broad strokes the film needs you to understand manage to land with grace. The Rubik’s Cube is solved by the end, all the Chekhov’s Guns go off, and ultimately the script makes you feel smart.

That’s all many people will want from one of Christopher‘s films, and it’s what sticks with me despite looking back on the movie’s first half with somewhat exhausted confusion. A two-and-a-half-hour movie that moves with such quick cuts between close-ups and mediums is probably going to feel really long, but the stretch of time between meeting our main man and understanding pretty much anything about his goals is just a smidge too long. It doesn’t help that just about every new character introduction deals in plot movement over character to an absolute fault, making some of the extraneous ones feel completely worthless (I regret to inform you that this includes Michael Caine‘s requisite cameo). Poetically enough, the first half of Tenet wastes and misuses time.

As is par for the course for this plot-driven director, good actors need to do much of the heavy lifting to make us care about the characters, so it’s a good thing John David Washington plays the guy on the poster. The BlacKkKlansman lead is more than a match for everything the screenplay requires of him and he manages to draw some fun nuance out of the four complicated relationships that drive the story – with Robert Pattinson‘s jack-of-all-trades spy, Elizabeth Debicki‘s vengeful abuse victim, Dimple Kapadia‘s mysterious matriarch and Kenneth Branagh‘s shady plutonium dealer. In fact most of the performances are fantastic, save for Branagh‘s jerkily inconsistent dives in and out of cartoon land. The cast go a long way towards making up for the screenplay’s occasional disinterest in their plights.

When it does reach more people, Tenet will probably have its fair share of detractors. Much like Quentin Tarantino‘s 2019 piece Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, this is a film that wears almost every single hallmark of its auteur director on its sleeve prouder than any previous effort. In many ways it’s the most indulgent Christopher Nolan movie yet to hit screens, and that will disappoint people expecting him to take more of the risks he’s been taking since he moved on from The Dark Knight Rises. It will also disappoint people looking for bigger explosions and bigger stunts, not to mention those who believe he has somehow become more interested in human character interactions these days. And given the situation international cinema is in right now, it will probably disappoint the Warner Bros executives.

But it hasn’t disappointed me. This may be a movie with some three-star components among its five-star ones, but where it matters, it trends towards the better end. Tenet is far from Christopher Nolan‘s best film, but there are moments where the director’s glee to show you his cool plot ideas takes over the (gigantic) frame and radiates with Memento-era enthusiasm, overriding any surrounding structural issues. It’s weirdly comforting; like watching an expensive, multi-levelled, blindingly-shiny puzzle sliding into place with a crystal-clear, speaker-shattering click. And it’s 2020, so there’s nothing else like it in any direction for 100 miles. Depending on where you live it may not be worth leaving the house for, but if you’re a fan of one of cinema’s most recognisable directing talents, it will eventually be worth your time.


Good: Visually razor-sharp, striking score, mostly great performances, oh-so mechanically satisfying
Bad: Low on action spectacle, feels even longer than it is

515/110A M A Z I N G

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