As the world was brought to a standstill due to Covid 19 …
… a sector hit hard was the film industry, with highly anticipated films such as No Time To Die of the James Bond franchise being pushed back by months. As the film slate emptied and cinemas began to close, we saw movie studios pivot to online releases. However, one film that stuck to ensuring that it was going to be seen in cinemas first was Tenet, the new effort from Christopher Nolan.
As a result, this film finally arrives six weeks later than expected, under circumstances that it could never have imagined; being mainly responsible for helping the masses feel comfortable in going back to cinemas. With that in mind, the film has some heavy lifting to do. Not only is Tenet’s story about saving the world; it’s not a stretch to say that its performance at the box office could potentially save cinema.
Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s original take on the spy genre, placing us in a unique world of international espionage, a mission that will unfold into something that goes beyond real-time. A bit more than time travel – but inversion. A film that the director has been pondering on for years, it is a thrilling ride that will entertain and engage in equal measure.
There is a great moment early on in the film, where a scientist (Clemence Poesy – in her only scene) tries to explain the central concept of the story to The Protagonist (John David Washington). She tells him that time can be ‘inverted’ – meaning that realities can move forward in time, but can also move backward. So rather than firing a gun at a wall as standard for example, when time is inverted, you’re not shooting the gun, you’re catching the bullet. “Don’t try to understand it.” says the scientist. It was at this point I laughed because it felt like advice to us, the audience.
When approaching Tenet, it’s important to say that there is a lot of exposition in this film. A hell of a lot. As The Protagonist (his name is never revealed) hops from country to country, he meets various individuals who add another layer of complexity to the plot and at times, you feel like you’re slowly understanding less and less about what’s going on. But, by not trying to comprehend absolutely everything straightaway (that’s, after all, what repeated viewings are for), and as long as you get the main premise – Washington trying to discover who’s using this phenomenon for evil gains and thereby saving the world in the process – you’ll be just fine.
Nolan is known for starting his films with as much impact as possible, and Tenet is no exception, with a stunning set piece in an opera house in Estonia where we’re first introduced to The Protagonist. On a normal print, the sequence is impressive. On a 70mm print, however, it’s absolutely masterful. As mentioned, Nolan was adamant that this film was not going to be experienced for the first time on your MacBook, and in these first few moments, you can absolutely see why he was right to delay the release until cinemas reopened. The opening few minutes grab you by the jugular and don’t let go, most definitely defining the tone for some truly brilliant action sequences throughout. And when you realise that they were done with minimal CGI, it becomes quite clear that we’re spending the next 150 minutes with a director at the absolute top of his game.
Let’s just get it out of the way – Tenet is crowd-pleasing, challenging, and game-changing cinema. Looking at the trailers and all of the promotion around the film, you might feel like it’s most similar to Inception (2010), Nolan’s brilliant psychological heist movie. But, as this film deals with the distortion of time, there is certainly a connective thread with Memento (2000), probably the first time we all sat up and realised that this filmmaker might be quite special indeed. Set in various locations from Tallinn, London, Mumbai, and the Amalfi Coast in order to show us what’s at stake – not just our own individual fate, but the fate of all of us, around the world. Nolan continues to construct an increasingly complex and intricate world, one that gets even more chaotic upon the introduction of Neil (Robert Pattinson), who seems to be always one step ahead of The Protagonist.
As with Inception, the Bond influence in this film is clear – Nolan has never hidden his love of the 007 franchise, especially The Spy Who Loved Me (1997). His intention to create escapist and fantasy components to his work come to fruition here, with an ambitious third act which hasn’t been referenced to in any promotion, making it all the more rewarding to experience when it arrives.
It’s worth mentioning the action again. Far from being a slouch in this area, Nolan has somehow stepped his game up once again (using IMAX cameras), presumably with experience of working on Dunkirk (2017) giving him the ability to scale up. As we’re dealing with the concept of time distortion and the idea of a palindrome (Tenet, like the words “racecar” or “madam”, means the same thing spelt backwards as forwards), you get the opportunity to see the set pieces more than once, and the results are astonishing. From using dance choreographers to staging a huge car chase, we see what these moments look like when they are manipulated by time.
Washington is a brilliant leading man, proving that BlacKkKlansman (2018) wasn’t a one-off. He gives great performance as The Protagonist, which is all the more impressive because we don’t get any backstory for him, something which I really wanted the film to lean into. However, what we do get a sense of is his duty and self-sacrifice to the cause of saving the world. There are some subtle references in the script to microaggressions that a Black man moving in these predominately White spaces might experience; in all honesty, they are -blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments in a film with plenty to say, but I appreciated the acknowledgement of a Black man being “othered” in an environment he’s not made to feel entirely welcome in. Washington’s natural on-screen charisma works well to diffuse, and even add humour to the situation.
If there is one criticism of Nolan’s filmography as a whole is that sometimes he can sacrifice character development in the place of plot, but there are promising signs that this is something that even he’s starting to realise. Despite being disappointed that The Protagonist wasn’t more fleshed out, I felt Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat got a satisfying arc, and Kenneth Branagh exercises his acting chops as a Russian arms dealer playing fast and loose with his own soul and the world at large.
I thought that this film was excellent; it’s almost as if Nolan has created a ‘greatest hits’ compilation and presented it on screen – fans of his previous work (Especially Memento, Inception, and Dunkirk) will find a lot to love here. However, as much as I would love to be proved wrong, I think that, for some, there will simply be too much going on in the plot. But if you’ve seen any of Nolan’s work, you should know by now that he’s never going to deliver you a “leave your brain at the door” action film.
His work, which spans over the best part of two decades, has challenged us, entertained us, and immersed us in the detailed worlds he’s created. Tenet is a worthy addition to his filmography and I can’t wait to watch it again.
Review by Anthony Andrews of We Are Parable
Tenet comes to UK cinemas August 26, 2020 and the US September 3, 2020