After nearly twenty years behind the camera, Christopher Nolan has carved out his niche: He makes intelligent, complex, spectacle-laden blockbusters. He’s an intellectual ponderer by way of popcorn sensibilities.
For better or for worse, Nolan makes movies that dazzle but also may require a board with various strings connecting various characters and events. Tenet, while not Nolan’s strongest film, serves as another strong, visually rich, intellectually labyrinthine cinematic experience.
Nolan films are best experienced with little foreknowledge, so spoilers will be kept to a minimum. Confusion is the default setting for much of the film’s running time. There’s a moment when a character says, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” and you expect Basil Exposition to pop up, turn to the camera, and say, “and that goes for all you too.” Tenet is Nolan’s most complex, narratively dense film, meant to be experienced and washed over its audience rather than truly understood step-by-step. The ability to just roll with it will be entirely subjective. This is a film I expect will divide people, and there will be some that just can’t be bothered to do the intellectual heavy lifting required to follow Nolan’s trail of narrative breadcrumbs. For me, though, I’m getting glorious spectacle and temporal debates, and it’s not even my birthday. This kind of film is my cat nip, so you ask me to maneuver my way through it, and I’ll fall in line accordingly.
The film mainly centers around an individual, known solely as The Protagonist (John David Washington), recruited by an organization known as Tenet (a word whose palindromic nature is probably no accident) to avert a potential disaster. He’s aided by Neil (Robert Pattinson), and they find themselves running up against an arms dealer in Mumbai (Dimple Kapadia), a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh), and his estranged wife (Elizabeth Debicki).
With its cavalcade of colorful characters and complex espionage narrative, Tenet emerges as Nolan’s most blatant attempt to earn himself a chance to helm a James Bond installment. It’s essentially sci-fi James Bond, with none of the campiness such a description implies. There’s even a shot that feels pulled right out of Dr. No.
It’s also a film that seems to pull from nearly all of Nolan’s back catalog. Unnamed lead character? He did that in his debut feature, Following. He’s played with physics-defying action sequences in Inception. A villain mostly characterized by brute-force ruthlessness feels reminiscent of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. There are plot twists that remind one of Interstellar, and a line near Tenet‘s end echoes The Prestige’s, “No one cares about the man in the box.” Beyond all of those little homages, however, is Nolan’s continued fascination with time, how its passing impacts us and its inherently subjective way one experiences time’s passage. Tenet manages to take that fascination with time to extremes, and it’s glorious to behold.
Performances are strong throughout. Washington basically has the James Bond role, and his name should be at the top of the list if the studio ever decides to bestow that iconic tuxedo upon an American actor.
He exudes charisma and manages to balance his character’s inherent selflessness with the ruthlessness necessary to complete the mission. It’s a mesmerizing performance. Pattinson’s mercurial Neil, with his charmingly unflappable jadedness, rumpled appearance, and slightly askew glances, emerges as one of Nolan’s best supporting characters. He’s an absolute joy to watch onscreen. Tenet can seem a chilly film, a criticism frequently lobbed in Nolan’s direction with which I’ve never really agreed. However, Washington’s and Pattinson’s warm, effortless chemistry when they share the screen gives the film the warmth it may otherwise lack.
Kenneth Branagh manages to craft a genuinely menacing antagonist, creating a truly terrifying character. Elizabeth Depicki’s character, however, feels like the film’s weak link. Her performance is fine, but she’s given motivations that seem absurdly myopic and she appears to exist solely to ensure that plans will not unfold accordingly. She may be an upgrade from the “dead wife” trope that can populate Nolan’s films, but he’s crafted far better female characters. Honestly, Dimple Kapadia’s character, Pringa, emerges as a more interesting, compelling screen character. She’s just doesn’t have much screen time.
Tenet is really a film for the senses, gorgeous images splashed across the screen and a gloriously foreboding score by Ludwig Göransson, taking over from regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, busy with the upcoming Dune. It sometimes takes on almost horror-film inflections that really heighten the narrative’s suspense and tension.
Nolan may have an emotionally reserved reputation, but there’s a palpable glee emanating off the screen as we watch phenomenally choreographed fight scenes and car chases. Kudos to editor Jennifer Lame, best know for quieter, more intimate fare such as Hereditary and Manchester by the Sea, for managing to craft such breathtaking sequences. Cinematographer Hoyt van Hoytema crafts images onscreen that look like art. It’s a truly a gorgeous film to behold. While its emphasis on ideas over emotions may mean it’s not as strong a film as something like Inception or Interstellar, which both have more obvious emotional cores, it moves at such a thrillingly relentless pace and looks so beautiful, I really can’t pretend I wasn’t anything but transfixed by it.
I know it’s easy to just dismiss Nolan’s films as cerebral puzzles, and Tenet is unlikely to disavow anyone of that notion. It’s also easy to just toss aside how impressive it is that Nolan’s box office success has ensured studios grant him massive budgets to make films as complicated and risky as his often are. He’s allowed to make a film for audiences who he assumes are as intelligent as he is, throw them into an intangible web of intrigue and trust they’ll find their bearings. He may have a particular sandbox in which he enjoys playing, but such loft goals deserve celebrating and championing. This may not be Nolan’s best, but it’s still well worth the price of an IMAX movie ticket. It’s a film meant to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable with the best possible sound system, although be prepared for your ears to be ringing when the film’s credits roll, so if you feel safe venturing out back to the theaters, Tenet is well worth your time. It reminds you of the thrills and excitement missing since theaters closed, and reminds you that it’s an experience that really only a film on the big screen can provide.