Review: Tenet

by Andrew Parker

More dynamic and dense than anything else in his back catalogue, yet familiar in tone and appearance, filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s latest effort, Tenet, will leave his legions of ardent admirers pleasantly satiated, while probably leaving just as many people scratching their heads in bewilderment. The palindromically titled and executed Tenet is the type of motion picture that will leave those enamoured with it chomping at the bit to examine all of its secrets, lies, and misdirections ad infinitum, while leaving those lost in Nolan’s delicately constructed and multilayered sauce wondering what all the fuss was about. It’s simultaneously a bold, brainy, big screen blockbuster, the work of an artist firmly in control of his almost wickedly egomaniacal vision (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), and a Christopher Nolan greatest hits album. 

I generally get the gist of Tenet, and I look forward to watching it again sometime in the future (or maybe even in the past), mostly to address some of the nagging questions that remain after watching the film after a first pass. It’s not a work of time hopping sci-fi that can easily be written off as a bunch of highfalutin mumbo-jumbo, nor is it the type of movie that could ever be accused of being smarter than people give it credit for. Tenet is built around a story that’s constantly asserting its own intellectual superiority over the audience, which is equal parts commendable and annoying when one looks at the material as a whole and not just a bunch of great ideas and high spots. 

One could shut their brain off while watching Tenet and let the gorgeously realized explosions, action sequences, and set pieces wash over them in gorgeous 70mm or IMAX presentations, but good luck keeping up with Nolan’s increasingly convoluted story. Similarly, one can take an entire journal’s worth of notes while watching, in a bid to make sense of it all, and completely miss out on anything that makes Tenet fun to sit through for two and a half hours. About the only thing I can compare Tenet to – other than saying that it’s a crazier version of Nolan’s similarly minded and set dressed Inception – is what might’ve happened if Donnie Darko’s brooding lead character were reimagined as a globetrotting super spy. (Full disclosure: I despise Donnie Darko, and I don’t mind Tenet, so take that comparison for whatever you think it’s worth.)

Following a counterterrorism operation gone awry, an American CIA agent (John David Washington) is recruited to a different shadowy government organization to stop a Russian madman and arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh, doing a slightly more serious riff on a similar character that he played in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) from kickstarting World War III and potentially bringing about the end of the world. The villain has harnessed the ability to “invert” time, meaning he has the ability to travel backwards across a timeline to mysteriously place futuristic weapons and other simple machines into a past where they didn’t previously exist. The Protagonist (which is all Washington’s character is called throughout the film) is learning the ins, outs, and various limitations of inverting time in a race to figure out his adversary’s ultimate endgame. He’s aided in his mission by a mysterious, but kind British secret agent (Robert Pattinson) and the weapons trader’s wife (Elizabeth Debicki), a psychologically and physically abused woman and mother who needs to remain close to her husband for the good guys to have a chance at stopping him.

In somewhat typical Nolan fashion, Tenet opens with what might be the most impressive set piece in the entire movie, one that deserves special consideration for the impeccable work put in by a lot of well trained background extras. Nolan is a maestro of large scale, inventive action sequences that both deliver the popcorn movie goods audiences expect, while leaving them all in awe of how he pulled them off. There’s a nifty car chase, a riff on heist movie cliches involving priceless works of art and an airplane filled with gold, and even fight scenes that switch between going backwards and forwards in time. The action beats are a blast to sit through, but they’re also the only breathers audiences will get from the constantly evolving and increasingly complicated storyline.

Tenet might be a smart movie, but it certainly isn’t a minimalist one. Everything about the story – except for the characters themselves – is as dense as an advanced level physics textbook. Like Inception and The Prestige before it, Nolan’s latest narrative operates in the space where science and philosophy overlap. In one sense, it’s a rather traditional story that poses a lot of ethical questions surrounding theoretical sciences (the bedrock of almost all great sci-fi), and on a deeper level it questions the mentality of the people forced into making such choices. Like most Nolan films, there’s also an undercurrent about the nature of wealth and privilege that the bespoke suit and flashy car loving filmmaker integrates with a degree of uneasy ambiguity to a point where one can’t tell if he’s celebrating or critiquing the rich. But while Inception’s similarly structured “timelines within timelines” story was relatively easy to understand, watching that film is like earning a high school diploma compared to this film’s Master of Fine Arts degree. The scientific, logical, and ethical discussions presented by Tenet will likely be parsed for years to come, but that doesn’t mean Nolan’s latest script is watertight.

The characters themselves are bland, but that’s by design, and thankfully Washington and Pattinson enliven things a great deal, with both oozing charisma and swagger that makes following along with their collective plights worthwhile. Both bring a lot of charm and wit to a script that’s Nolan’s most openly humorous, snappy, and verbose to date. Neither character has a lot of depth, but they still have something rather basic to work with, and the chemistry they share adds another element of fun to be had. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Fiona Dourif also deserve some special credit for showing up just past the halfway point as characters with the unenviable task of trying to explain much of the film’s plot mechanics. Johnson and Dourif put in some great and subtle work making these characters more than mere plot devices. 

The film stumbles, however, in the handling of Debicki’s character and her relationship to Branagh’s inconsistently written villain. A lot of Tenet’s plot uneasily hinges on the mistreatment of an abused woman, and more than a few times, Nolan crosses the line into bad taste territory. It’s disheartening watching an actress as talented as Debicki playing a woman who’s nothing more than a glorified damsel in distress that’s treated almost as terribly by the film’s heroes as she is by her constantly threatening and belt wielding husband. (Not to mention that she already played a much better version of this same character in Steve McQueen’s both underrated and superior heist thriller, Widows.) She’s only in the film to be perpetually put in harm’s way, and there’s only a cursory amount of satisfaction the character is ever allowed to have. 

This thread isn’t helped much by Branagh’s inability to choose a tone to stick with in his performance. One moment, the character is a campy goofball bent on world domination and always ready to match Washington’s wits with a quip of his own, and seconds later he’s a downright nasty sadist. This relationship should serve as the heart and soul of the movie, but instead it’s reduced to just some more cogs in Nolan’s elaborate machine.

A little more simplicity might not have hurt Tenet, either. I have nothing against films that are actively trying to be smart, but Nolan shoots himself in the toes here through his perpetual adherence to a structure mandating a major game changing twist at the start and end of every act. While it sounds smart on the whole, Nolan stumbles with some key reveals that are so wildly illogical even within the fabric of his own story that it sounds like the writer-director is making things up as he’s going along. These kinds of grand reveals are built around facts that are known to some of the characters well in advance, but are never mentioned until the last second for dramatic effect; the kind of information that could’ve ended the movie a lot sooner if these people didn’t wait so long to bring them up. It’s a script so caught up in its own minutiae and clockwork structure that it often forgets about the basics. There’s also something to be said about a film based around a time shifting concept that never takes a stance on whether the heroes or villains are ever truly capable of seeing every possible eventuality or outcome before it happens. But that would eventually lead to a conversation about string theory, and I get the sense it’s not a topic Nolan has thought very much about while constructing this particular narrative.

Not that Nolan needs to have these discussions with myself or anyone else about Tenet. All that matters is that the film’s ultimate “oh, wait, I think I get it now” moment works well enough to explain the film’s stylishly woven fabric. This is a confident, auteur driven film by someone who knows precisely what they want their film to be. It’s not the best Nolan film by a longshot, but it’s certainly the MOST Nolan film, and there’s certainly a curious charm to that. His fans will eat this up, and I hope it ushers in a new era where Washington and Pattinson can be more credibly seen as sophisticated action movie heroes. Narrative stumbles and Nolan’s uneasily basic attitude towards his primary female character aside, Tenet is a fine and reasonably fun film to welcome people back to multiplexes after months away.

On a final note, I should acknowledge that Tenet might not be worth leaving the house for if you feel at risk. In Ontario, Canada – where COVID-19 cases are somewhat under control and most theatres across the country have slowly been reopening over the past month – things might be better than wherever you are reading this from. I will admit that I saw Tenet at a semi-private screening in a large auditorium with reduced seating capacity and plenty of room to maintain social distancing. In the theatre, I felt safe and relatively undistracted, but probably because there were only eleven people there, I knew a majority of those in attendance, and everyone was very good about wearing masks and keeping a distance. On public transit to and from the screening in a major metropolitan city, I didn’t feel as safe and comfortable. That was the part of the trip that made me question if it was worth going out or not, and it had nothing to do with the cleanliness of the theatre or the quality of the movie itself. We critics review the movie and not the experience, but these days, I think it would be prudent to at least acknowledge the circumstances under which the film in question is being released.

Take all proper precautions should you choose to see Tenet in theatres anytime soon. Wear a mask unless you’re eating or drinking, or better yet, don’t do either and just leave the thing on the whole time. (As someone who wears glasses, I can attest that it’s a minor inconvenience fraught with sometimes foggy lenses, but personally, I’m willing to pay that price for my own mental well-being.) Make informed decisions and remember that there’s no such thing as a zero-risk scenario when it comes to spending a considerable amount of time in an indoor setting around people you don’t know. 

Personally, I think it’s a bit too early to be heading back to cinemas just yet (and absolutely too soon to be sending kids back to school all at once and en masse), but if you need to go or you’re getting stir crazy, exercise some personal responsibility and be mindful of others. If you feel anxious, but still want to go, maybe consider waiting until a weekday afternoon to see it. I can attest that Monday and Thursday afternoons are the particularly great times to see movies and not worry about audiences distracting from the viewing experience. Also, if you get into the theatre and you feel uncomfortable, you can tell theatre management or you can leave. No movie is worth your life, and if you feel endangered, no one is forcing you to stay. Be smart. Be safe. Have fun. Don’t ruin this for everyone else.

Tenet opens in theatres across Canada on Wednesday, August 26th.

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