We’ve become accustomed to Christopher Nolan boggling our minds in the cinema. From Memento to Interstellar, it’s no secret that the man loves to play with time and toy with our heads. And then there’s Tenet. Nolan’s latest flick is an espionage thriller like no other. It’s bombastic, original, and, quite frankly, a lot to take in.
Given the filmmaker’s track record, it comes as no shock that Tenet’s plot is complex and spoiler-filled. We follow a CIA agent – only known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) – who gets recruited to investigate future technology that moves objects or people backwards through time. Aided by Neil (Robert Pattinson), the pair track down Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), the one using the futuristic time-inverting technology to bring about global destruction. The Protagonist and Neil use Sator’s abused wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to reach him, while also trying to liberate her. Crazy, complicated time-inverting thrills ensue.
Without question, Tenet’s time manipulation concept is really fascinating and lends itself to some uniquely insane situations and action set-pieces. The fight choreography is nothing short of impressive. And the visuals – from bullets to cars – of objects inverted through time is something to behold. Nolan really knows how to create bold, memorable sequences that have never been seen before. There are a lot of films involving espionage or time travel, but Nolan admirably is able to combine the two and create something wholly original and ambitious. The movie definitely warrants repeat viewings, both for comprehension and also just to admire the intricacies at work.
This globetrotting adventure also takes us through various stunning locations which are fun to admire, gratuitous as they sometimes are. In his third partnership with Nolan, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema once again brings bombastic scale and style to each shot. Meanwhile, Ludwig Göransson’s exhilarating score wonderfully complements the images, especially the action scenes. The visceral impact of every thrilling sequence is definitely felt. Like all of Nolan’s films, Tenet is another experience that is definitely made to be seen on the big screen (where safe).
The entire cast is solid, even if most of the supporting characters are primarily used for expository purposes. John David Washington especially shines as our nameless action hero. He’s both effortlessly suave and a convincing badass. And Robert Pattinson’s understated charm plays well off Washington. Their chemistry really works even if their characters aren’t given a whole lot of substance. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Debicki gives the movie some much needed emotional grounding. Kat’s abusive relationship with Sator and devotion to her son provide the film’s more sensitive scenes, even if it’s slightly unearned. All the character payoffs are satisfying enough; I just wish we were able to care more about them.
Tenet’s main weakness is that the storyline does get too convoluted to fully reach its high ambitions. It’s easy to be swept up in the spectacle of the film, but difficult to get truly invested in the characters or plot. As far as the logic of the time-inversion goes, it’s best not to dwell too much over it, lest you want to give yourself a headache. For a movie with a lot of exposition, the plot is often unclear and challenging to keep up with. And it doesn’t help that a lot of the dialogue was inaudible. Even time-inversion aside, the character motivations and espionage story itself are only very briefly laid out. Certain events are unnecessarily complicated, or overly-indulgent without much barring to the plot. The stellar craftsmanship and directing keep the ride entertaining, no doubt, but you are often left confused and overwhelmed by all that’s thrown at you.
At one point, a character remarks: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it”, which really encapsulates the entire movie, for better or for worse. Tenet is two and a half hours of thrills and innovative (albeit, challenging) storytelling that leaves you astounded. While the accessibility to the story and characters is lacking, Tenet’s grandiose ambition and inventiveness still make it worthwhile.
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