The following is a review of Tenet — Directed by Christopher Nolan.
In December of 2019, I sat down in an IMAX theater to watch the ninth episode of the so-called Skywalker-saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Accompanying the latest Disney space opera was an early preview of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film Tenet. The lengthy, overwhelming, and jaw-dropping clip was riveting and showed a lot of promise. As a Star Wars fan, it hurts to admit that that clip was so good, in fact, that the Disney-film it preceded struggled to live up to it. In fact, during the last eight months, I’ve thought a lot about that preview, while I have yet to revisit The Rise of Skywalker. Christopher Nolan’s ambitious spy flick has, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, been proclaimed to be the potential savior of the theatrical experience, which has, understandably, struggled immensely this summer.
But can Tenet, or any movie for that matter, really thrive theatrically this close to the pandemic? Its financial success is questionable for more reasons than one, but, as a purely cinematic experience, Tenet is ‘a lot of movie’ and exactly the kind of major motion picture cineastes have been craving during the lockdown. With Tenet, you get your money’s worth, and then some, but its complex premise may hinder its success with the general moviegoing public.
Before I get ahead of myself, and without revealing too much, let me establish the basic premise of Nolan’s latest film and time-experiment. Tenet is a spy film that follows an unnamed CIA agent (played by John David Washington) who, after having been captured and tortured, wakes up and is recruited by a secret organization that hopes to prevent a new world war. Our protagonist learns that, in the future, they have developed a technology that allows for objects to manipulate and move backward through time. An Anglo-Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh), is supposedly able to use this technology in the present day, and if our protagonist is unable to prevent Sator from completing the mission that future generations appear to have tasked him with, then Sator could end the world.
Admittedly, Tenet can be tough to follow. A previous Nolan-directed film instructed audiences to ‘watch closely,’ but, even if you do, I think it is difficult not to miss something during some of the film’s many pivotal lines of expositional dialogue about the future inversion-technology in Tenet. In the film, a scientist tells our protagonist: “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it,” which is probably the best way to experience the film on your first viewing as some of the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey explanations will probably make you scratch your head in confusion. At times, Tenet is more difficult to follow than any other Nolan film, and I have no doubt in my mind that it will frustrate and perplex a sizeable number of audience members.
But if Tenet is a head-scratcher, then it is one of the most impressive head-scratchers ever made, as it is elevated by solid acting, thrilling globe-trotting, and mind-boggling but masterful action set-pieces. The energetic and jam-packed film is at its best during its heist sequences in Oslo or Tallinn. These elaborate set-pieces are riveting and they both ultimately lead up to the film’s most jaw-dropping action scenes, wherein characters moving forward sometimes have to fight characters moving backward. The stunt-work is, frankly, extraordinary.
The film is also generally very entertaining when John David Washington is dressed to the nines alongside Robert Pattinson’s charismatic scientist. Washington delivers a solid performance as the film’s central spy, and Pattinson steals every scene he is in. Pattinson’s performance in Tenet reminded me so much of Tom Hardy in Inception, which is intended to be a great compliment. Their dynamic was so good that I really wish Pattinson and Washington had even more scenes together.
Tenet showcases Christopher Nolan, arguably Hollywood’s favorite auteur of the last ten years, at both his best and his worst. In the film’s best moments, Nolan, as well as his stunt crew and his editor, accomplish action sequences that defy understanding. Those elaborate heist set-pieces are overwhelming in the best possible way. The technical mastery is impeccable. Unfortunately, while Nolan’s fresh plot is ambitious and cerebral, it is also sometimes so mind-boggling that important expositional dialogue delivered in jaw-dropping scenes do not adequately explain what you are watching.
But if you are willing to accept its complexities, you will be met with a gripping spy film with a time-bending twist that only someone like Nolan could pull off this masterfully. This is absolutely a film that will benefit from multiple viewings, which is a challenge that Nolan’s ardent supporters will be up for. Based on my first viewing, though, I can say that I think Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is an ambitious and thrilling high-concept spy flick that, admittedly, is probably easier to admire than it is to love.
8.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.