Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is the latest big-budget action film that somehow manages to shine at a time when it shouldn’t. But it doesn’t stop the film from delivering clever and thrilling sequences that don’t leave enough information for audiences to work with.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic setting Hollywood back across 2020, this is where Nolan’s time-bending espionage movie took on an even bigger anticipation (in the wrong ways) and marked a return for those yearning to feel the hug of a big silver screen again. It’s more than a bold statement to pull off such a feat in the face of losing interest. But if you thought Tenet was fun and mind-bending from the trailers, the full movie manages to take its absurd twist and squeeze out a surprise in every set piece across its two-and-a-half hour runtime.
Nolan also returns to creating a modern tale with more than a touch of fluid action, dash of practical visual effects and sprinkles of meta theories. It’s incredibly easy to think Tenet is a spiritual successor to 2010’s Inception, but merely uses its formula of making the absurd believable. The result is a film that puts all of Nolan’s favourite ingredients into full force, even if it loses the audience way before things cut to black. It’s an even better treat for Nolan followers, enamored by the closely-followed gunfights of The Dark Knight Rises and show-all explanations from The Prestige.
Tenet‘s premise also comes off as a more serious no-nonsense narrative about an unnamed, but highly (incredibly) skilled CIA agent caught in a race to save the world from a Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who discovered a way to tamper with the past. The agent (John David Washington) follows his only lead: the word Tenet. This leads him in a partnership with mysterious operative Neil (Robert Pattinson) as they pick up the time-bending breadcrumbs. It’s a simpler plot which Nolan handles with care in order to make space for Tenet‘s meta elements.
Thanks to a younger but breakout veteran cast, their performances and natural pairings with each other make Tenet‘s transitions between action pieces very enjoyable. This is where John David Washington’s channels his experience as a lead in BlacKkKlansman and becomes a stoic, ruthless badass. But when his nameless character isn’t brutally taking on-screen goons down, Washington uses his role to make both actors and their characters comfortable like a real agent. This somber, witty banter brought me a few chuckles in a film where my brows strained from concentration. It’s also made convincing as other characters show their own motives as agents, making Washington adaptable to strange moments in time (and even stranger moments from characters testing his patience).
Given Washington’s weight in the light cast, Tenet has more value in the own stunts he does. This adaptability from dialogue to action almost becomes an instinct, following Washington’s experience playing college football and running back for Sacramento Mountain Lions. I was impressed at Washington’s propensity to propel and slide into action, like a younger Tom Cruise unflinched by the surrounding chaos in a Nolan firefight. As with all movies screwing with time, Tenet also shows some action in reverse, apparently a challenge for Washington when he moves awkwardly through them.
Washington is also mutually beneficial for Robert Pattinson, known for communicating with body language and a few words. But fans of Pattinson might find him more comfortable and chattier in a modern situation. He also fits in a surprisingly likeable role that leaves viewers with more respect following his character’s story arc. Elizabeth Debicki plays Kat, who just as comfortably delivers a performance for the wife of Tenet‘s villain. Reflecting her chemistry with Kenneth Branagh, their roles as husband and wife are both hostile and terrifying. Debicki transitions from hiding her fears to facing them after years of abuse from Sator. For Branagh, viewers might flinch at his unbridled fury shown at his wife, but scales it back as a typical and barely patient criminal boss in other parts.
Without spoilers, inversion is Tenet‘s phenomenon in which I can drop an apple but somehow undo that action on the spot. Or showing up to a messy room, only to find it cleans itself in reverse as I walk around. Weird right? Inversion is also what drives the plot to all sorts of strange places, until it makes an effort to explain why things happened the way they did. From condos, to airplanes and a family sedan, Nolan has somehow turned these normal objects into bigger threats under inversion. Not only are they a clever source for tension in the movie, but create some memorable moments rarely shown by past action flicks. But Tenet‘s approach of revealing the rules during the action instead of beforehand takes Nolan’s direction a step back from Inception. Its ending is less ambiguous, thanks to Nolan telling a straightforward interpretation of his theory with a narrower focus. It’s important to pay attention to the film’s prologue, as it contains a subtle detail that viewers can miss.
It’s also a tougher temptation for Nolan to raise a bar for “real” death-defying spectacles from fellow directors such as Christopher McQuarrie, who was on a roll in Mission Impossible‘s resurgence since Ghost Protocol. But Tenet ultimately gives in and echoes the vibe of a spy film that tries to speak louder than its action. This is when Nolan delivers on the most action in any other of his films to date, stitched by breaks of time-theory explanation and character banter that feels too light for it to sink in with audiences. Despite the strongest viewers keeping their eyes peeled and ears sharp, the underdeveloped dialogue is what made me and many others skip a beat. This created more numbness and less of an impact when a time-bending effect actually does happen on-screen, leaving our minds rampant in an effort to fill in the blanks before.
This is standard Nolan procedure for those who’ve watched 2010’s Inception, which dedicated entire scenes to reiterating one theory before adding new rules. But Tenet‘s rush to fill in more action scenes ultimately detracts from the fun of understanding it all. My first (and only) screening of the film did help me get the basics of time-bending, or inversion according to official movie term. Given you’re making the most out of Tenet’s intentional mumbled quality, it’s still enough to make your jaws drop when the movie’s second act turns up the heat.
There’s just enough visual cues to let you know when something has happened (or hasn’t happened yet). Tenet makes super clever use of its inversion scenes, to the point where its seemingly smaller fight scenes actually make sense once the mystery clears up. Nolan has made an effective pacing from dedicating the first act to an investigation, then finding out inversion the hard way. It’s only when Tenet reveals the twist where things get fun across the third and final act. There’s credit in how the movie tries to tie its action scenes together if words have failed to do so at the start. It’s murkier by the time viewers see it, and more confusing once I was expected to know inversion fully when the curveballs start hitting me in the face.
I’ve gotten more than my spoiled amount of action from Tenet as things stop making sense on screen. It’s worth noting that Nolan has renewed his IMAX vows and viewers should be watching Tenet for how much it’s shot in 70mm. Nearly the entire screen is used this time, and takes up almost all of the action dominating half its runtime. This worked incredibly well for stunts performed on Tenet‘s large set pieces which heightened the tension for characters once things hit the fan. Like watching Inception in IMAX, going the extra mile for the bigger picture is no longer a novelty in Nolan’s books.