Review: Tenet

By Christian DiMartino

How does one put Christopher Nolan’s Tenet into words? To ask that question is to ask another: how did Christopher Nolan put Tenet into words? I imagine trying to pitch the idea of this film would make it sound like the writings of a madman. In this case, it’s more like the writings of a mad genius.

Nolan has of course clung onto the hope of getting his latest opus Tenet to the big screen as soon as possible, amidst the global pandemic. Now he has done it, and it’s very easy to see why he made such a push for his $300 million extravaganza. People, the money is on the screen. Sure, play your trip to the movies by ear, and if you don’t feel safe, then avoid going. If you do feel comfortable though, and are in need of a grand spectacle at the movies (this was my first trip to the movies since March), then Tenet not only demands to be seen, but it deserves to be seen, and on the biggest screen possible. I saw it in IMAX, and the result was breathtaking to say the least.

This film is essentially Christopher Nolan porn. It’s a film that captures everything that has made his films unique, his films tick, and what have made them such events. Perhaps people find it too similar to his other work, but his other work was so creative, there wasn’t an issue here. Tenet is a film that intends to wow, and wow it does. Nolan is a guy who’s been making huge movies since 2005, and with this one, he might have just made his biggest.

Where to begin? I’ll avoid giving away too many details from the plot, because there are plenty, but I’ll do my best to give you a good feel for it. John David Washington plays a spy of the sorts named “The Protagonist.” After a spectacular opening sequence, in which he was nearly shot, and he indeed witnesses the bullet move in reverse, he is brought in for an explanation.

Now, stay with me here. As it’s explained, there is a concept referred to as “time inversion.” As seen through a demonstration, one bullet moves forward, while another flies back into the gun. Said time inversion is refers to the way in which certain things move forward, as they should, and others move backward. The ones that move in reverse are in alignment with the space time continuum, or something. Big Nolan speak. Yet as a specialist played by Clemence Pose explains it, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” That’s probably the best way to put it. I understood it (I think) but you just have to go with the flow.

Said time inversion is also being sought after by a Russian terrorist named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, having a ball) who could use this time inversion business for destruction. Or, as they put it, World War III. He, and the good guys, are all after a giant metal piece that could complete another metal piece, that will cause the time inversion. So The Protagonist travels around the world and gets close to Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who is trapped in a miserable marriage. At first he admittedly uses her to get close to her villainous husband, but ultimately ends up caring for her.

Robert Pattinson is charming here as Neil, who partners up with The Protagonist on his globe trotting and may know more than he leads on. All of the performances here are good, particularly Debicki and Washington, the latter of which is, as Dennis Hopper would say, “one suave f**ker.” Yet I end my plot description with these details because… yeah I’m not at liberty to say much else. I’ll just say that if this sounds like a very Christopher Nolan-y plot, it is. But I mean that in a great way.

Nolan has often expressed interest in making a James Bond film. Here, he’s just about done it. This film is exactly what “Christopher Nolan’s James Bond” would look like. The first half of the film is very much a Bond film- beautiful locations, spectacularly flawless action sequences (the kind only Nolan could dream of), beautiful people, fancy suits, espionage of some sort. It’s smooth, suave, and damn neat. Then there’s the final half of the film, which will throw you in a tizzy and might potentially blow your brain out the back of your skull.

By the final half hour, what I was watching was not only dazzling to the eye but also utterly insane. Yet I wasn’t really lost, for the most part. Honestly the first half lost me more than the second, strangely, but even when I was feeling lost during that first act, all I really had to do was wait and the film fills in its blanks for you. It’s all a matter of paying attention… like really paying attention. Getting up to pee will probably be at your own peril.

I really love the aesthetic of this film. Nolan’s films always look pretty great, mostly due to the cinematography and the use of practical effects, rather than phony CGI. This film is gorgeous to behold, not just in terms of its locales but also its grand set pieces. The cinematography from Hoyt Van Hoytema, who collaborated with Nolan on Interstellar and Dunkirk, is first rate. The images in this film will linger in the mind long after it’s over. Not to mention, the sound design is also truly remarkable. From the one minute mark, and on, the film delivers the explosive greats. There’s also of course the effects, which are cutting edge, realistic, and movie magic at its finest. 

Then, there’s that score. Hans Zimmer had to sit this one out for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune. Taking his place is Ludwig Goransson, the recent Oscar winning composer for Black Panther. His work there was good. His work here is phenomenal. The sights, and the sounds, are all around sensational in this film.

Tenet is the trippiest ride you’ll take for some time. I also think it’s a great one. One that may lose you, but it’s a mystery that you’ll want to get entangled in, and solving it is irresistible. Honestly, the film didn’t confuse me very often; it just sort of left me in awe. Awe in terms of its grand spectacle, and its stunning ambition.

What is confusing to me is why people aren’t really going for it. Is it because the film is basically all of Nolan’s fascinations thrown into one film? There are shades of Interstellar, Memento, Inception and even The Prestige at play here. You may dock him points for doing such a thing, but here’s my thing: each of those films are stunning works of originality by themselves, and trying to combine ALL of them is quite the high wire act. But he’s done it, and terrifically. This might be a film for true believers only, but for us, it will deliver, and for those others, well, we don’t have to talk about it.

Nolan is here to rescue the cinematic experience, and Tenet sure is a great start. Like his best films, it’s one that needs to be seen again. I will indeed see it a second time- not just because I need to, but also because I want to. 

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