Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast : John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Michael Caine
Run Time : 2 h 31 min
Opens : 27 August 2020 (Sneaks 26 August)
Rating : PG13
One of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s well-known trademarks is the way he plays with time and the perception of time. Memento, Inception and Interstellar all have the perception of time as central themes – even his comparatively straightforward World War II movie Dunkirk was presented in three separate time frames that later converge. Nolan takes his preoccupation with time and how it can be presented onscreen to a new level with Tenet.
John David Washington plays the otherwise-unnamed Protagonist, an elite secret agent. He is roped in to achieve no less than saving the world from destruction. At first, all he has to go on is one word, “Tenet”, and a hand gesture of interlocking fingers. Together with his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), the Protagonist must unravel an intricate plot that involves a concept called “inversion” – time affects everything in one forward direction, but an unknown person or organization has figured out a way to reverse this effect, imbuing people and objects with the ability to function counter to the normal flow of time. Key to this mystery is the powerful and ruthless Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), whom the Protagonist tries to get to through Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who longs to be free of Sator’s controlling grip. The Protagonist and his allies must cross the world and bend the very fabric of time and space to prevent an unfathomable cataclysm.
Tenet’s reputation as a confusing movie precedes it. Early in the film, one character tells the Protagonist “don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” However, the movie seems to actively want the audience to engage with its ideas and unravel the heady concepts that fuel it. It’s up to each viewer how much effort they want to expend in understanding the movie. Kip Thorne, the theoretical physicist whose work inspired Interstellar, serves as a consultant on this movie too.
It helps to think of Tenet as a Bond movie with all the sci-fi elements layered on top and below that formula. Nolan has made no secret of being a massive 007 fan, with the snow fortress sequence in Inception an obvious homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, Tenet has a somewhat Bond-like protagonist, a Bond villain, something of a Bond girl, globe-trotting action and even a cold open not unlike a classic pre-title sequence in a Bond movie. Tenet almost stubbornly refuses to feel like a generic big studio action movie, even though the promotion for the film included its trailer premiering within the video game Fortnite, and a song by rapper Travis Scott that plays over the end credits, both things one might imagine Nolan baulking at.
The action set-pieces are astounding, and all feel satisfying tactile. There is a sequence in which a cargo plane veers off the runway and crashes into a section of an airport which was achieved by crashing an actual plane into a hangar at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. The other filming locations include Mumbai, India; Olso, Norway; Tallinn, Estonia and the Amalfi Coast, Italy. A car chase filmed on the Laagna Highway in Tallinn, which involves multiple heavy-duty vehicles including a firetruck, is a lavish, kinetic spectacle. The hydrofoil catamaran race combines glamour and thrills the way the best Bond movies do. This is Nolan’s loudest movie to date, with enough major action-driven moments to make the 151-minute runtime pass by at a decent clip.
The film’s visual signature is that of people and objects moving backwards in time, contrary to everything else in a given scene. This isn’t something that is especially new, but just like with the rotating hallway fight sequence in Inception, Nolan has taken something that we might have seen before and amped it up aggressively. There are a few satisfying moments in which the film’s concepts play out visually in grand fashion.
Like many of Nolan’s movies, Tenet had the potential to come off as cold, but Washington brings a spirited warmth and a liveliness to the proceedings. He is exceedingly charismatic and acquits himself well during the many complex action sequences. He also has excellent chemistry with Pattinson, who is extremely watchable as the Protagonist’s right-hand man. The Protagonist is deliberately left unnamed and in the hands of another actor, could have been a hollow cipher, but Washington has enough charm and gravitas to transcend that.
Nolan is not known for writing women especially well. Debicki’s Kat is a better-developed, more interesting character than many others. She still is a damsel in a degree of distress, but gains agency in an interesting way and has a strong hand in moving the plot forward. Branagh, who also featured in Dunkirk, sometimes plays the evil oligarch role a bit too broadly but is often legitimately scary.
There’s a scene in Looper in which the Older Joe tells his younger self that he would rather not explain the mechanics of time travel, otherwise they would end up sitting in the diner all day making diagrams out of straws. Tenet sometimes feels like Christopher Nolan making diagrams with straws, but it also benefits from the director’s “blank check” status – after his various successes, he gets a blank check to make whatever kind of movie he wants. Tenet is perhaps just a touch more opaque and headache-inducing than it needs to be, but it is also an invigorating cinematic experience. Just brace yourself for the hundreds of “Tenet explained” videos that will be popping up on YouTube in the coming months.
Summary: The singular vision of an accomplished filmmaker, Tenet is as perplexing as it is visually stunning, something that will leave audiences discussing it even as their heads spin.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars