tenet release options

One of the most delightful moments in Rian Johnson’s Looper occurs when Bruce Willis’s character dismisses the need to explain the temporal gymnastics at play to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, explaining that if he wastes time doing so they’re “gonna be here all day, drawing diagrams with straws”. With the latest chronotacular extravaganza Tenet, it’s fair to say that director Christopher Nolan has a deep love for straw diagrams, and has no hesitation making a palindromic structured (and titled) film to showcase them.

The plot of Tenet has been wrapped in secrecy, so we’ll be dancing around a lot of the more major twists and turns. Suffice it to say, Nolan has upped the ante compared to his earlier time twisting works, with Tenet presenting a Gordian knot of interwoven storylines that owes as much to his Memento, Inception and Interstellar as it does to Terminator, 12 Monkeys and even decades of Doctor Who storylines. Stylistically, Nolan’s script borrows heavily from the Bourne and Bond franchises, melding the spy genre with this high-concept near-future sci-fi, allowing for a more cerebral take on the globetrotting action orgy that we expect from espionage thrillers. 

The story begins inside a theatre with people wearing masks, made all the more surreal of course given the COVID conditions under which this film is seeing international release. Akin to his Batman films, this is a brash and contained action sequence that introduces us to John David Washington’s character, part of a SWAT-like team sent in to recover a metallic McGuffin. Immediately things are made all the more odd when bullet holes disappear as if the projectile was “un-shot,” an immediately unsettling event that speaks to a larger idea about the flow of entropy and how past and future can collide.

After a brief meeting with Sir Michael Crosby (played by Nolan regular Sir Michael Caine), our protagonist flies to India to connect with Neil (Robert Pattinson), where they infiltrate the apartment of a local arms dealer. After encountering Priya (Dimple Kapadia), they’re directed to follow the trail towards a corrupt Russian bazillionaire named Andrei Sator (played with relish by the darker knight, Sir Kenneth Brenagh), along with his trophy wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and their son Max (Laurie Shepherd).

A driving force for thrillers like this are the many exotic and photogenic locations, and the film doesn’t hesitate to put their characters in some heightened environments. From carbon fiber sailing yachts to Danish windfarms in the middle of the ocean, the scope is quite impressive. We see glimpses of India, Italy, Norway, the U.K., the U.S. and Estonia, the latter providing the setting for a massive sequence that takes place on a highway, with cars slamming from all directions of space and time. There are show-stopping spectacles at an airport using as much practical effect capacity as possible, another of Nolan’s common flourishes, making some of his earlier explosive events seem positively paltry.

Beyond the spectacle, there’s intense interest in crafting a film of deep complexity that’s still comprehensible to general audiences. To assist with that, the film provides almost as many lines of exposition as it does flurries of bullets, with even the closing remarks of the film providing an overt explanation of the events that just transpired. It can be a bit frustrating if you’ve been paying close attention along the ride, but maybe it’s hard to fault the need. The end result, unfortunately, is a film that presents itself as more dense than it really is, off-putting for some but repetitive and predictable for those attuned the magic trick that Nolan’s attempting to pull off.

There are narrative moments that really shine, and the temporal interplay is used to stellar effect. At other times, it feels like obfuscation rather than a further dive into the vagaries of the plot hook, simply recapitulating what’s been done before. When you’re dealing with things in a circular fashion, it’s hard not to feel that you’re just treading over the same ground, and it’s fair to say the results are mixed between those elements that soar versus those that land flat.

Washington’s physicality on screen is impressive, and his fighting sequences and sense of menace are unquestionably effective. Yet his taciturn air and somber delivery often feels more like disinterest rather than a deep, ruminative character. Pattinson seems far more ready to slip into his character, with a gleaming smirk that provides a dash of levity to the proceedings. Debicki’s role is perhaps the most challenging, and the actor pulls it off quite well. She’s believable during all timelines of her character’s travails, whether she’s strong or weak at a given moment. This is critical, as the choices she makes drive the narrative throughout. Then there’s Branagh, who seems mostly freed to take his role to theatrical levels of menace, but doing so without ever devolving into farce. There are times when it’s clear they held back on just how much a bastard he could be, and maybe with a bit more courage to show the worst in people, the stakes of the film might have been even more richly drawn.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography is suitably gleaming, mixing 15perf70mm IMAX with traditional 70mm framing in ways that are not always tied to the visual needs of a given sequence. There are reasons that Nolan doesn’t just shoot entirely in full IMAX (presumably, like in Dunkirk, with the vagaries of sound recording and desire for more intimate performances), but given the increasing percentage of shots, the switch between aspect ratios here is more distracting than it should be. As presented on a giant screen with Laser projection, the kinetic action and sweeping vistas were a sight to behold after months away from giant screens, yet I’d be lying if there weren’t times that the shakycam movements and whip-pan action didn’t unsettle my stomach a bit.

The soundscapes are as blasting as ever, with Ludwig Göransson’s droning soundscapes providing a different take on the Nolan “Brahhhmmmm” we’ve come to expect from collaborations with Hans Zimmer and others. Once again, we’ve got masked individuals that are near impossible to understand at parts, and the cacophony does result in many instances where it’s frustrating to parse just what the hell is being said. Luckily, as mentioned, the film has a repetitive structure and over and over proves its point, so if there’s one segment that feels like you missed a bit, you can just wait and it’ll all generally make sense.

In the end, Tenet feels like the most Nolan-y of Nolan’s own films, amping the many quirks of this remarkable filmmaker’s visual, aural and temporal fetishes up to 11. The result is messily entertaining, a film that feels both boisterous and bloated in equal measure. The drive of Nolan and his collaborators is to craft something that acts simultaneously as an escapist thrill and a deeper rumination on our choices and sacrifices, and how even the most small of circumstances can lead to events outside of our control. There’s a desire to entertain and engage audiences, not through the pre-established conventions of franchise lore that drives most blockbusters, but through a spark of originality that draws from past works but fiercely attempts to carve its own niche. This is to be lauded, even if the end result feels very loud and needlessly dense. 

This film is a lot, to be sure. But it’s a film worth engaging with, benefiting by not getting too caught up in the straw diagrams and leaning more heavily on the visceral thrills of it all. As such, Tenet should exclusively be experienced on the biggest screen possible, which, admittedly, is no small feat given our current COVID circumstances. As frustrating as some of the film’s faults may be, it’s still a glorious attempt at giving us a meal that’s both sweet and savoury. 

No other artform could quite present such a collision of time, place, idea and emotion, and it’s clear that Nolan’s pure intent is to give us the utmost of what this medium can uniquely provide. At its best this is a ride that manages to be viscerally thrilling while still being emotionally and intellectually engaging, all in ways that are truly, uniquely cinematic.

In other words, say what you will about the tenets of Tenet, at least it has an ethos.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.