Disclaimer: This will not be a review of what it was like to watch “Tenet” in a movie theater, only of the movie itself. Despite working at one, I am still of the opinion that packing people into a movie theater for two hours or more at a time, even with enhanced cleaning and distancing measures, is not a very good idea, especially given that the U.S. has now passed six million COVID-19 cases, and the ability to take one’s mask off in the auditorium space practically invites the complete removal of them by more ignorant persons even without the “justification” of having snacks in hand. Multiple health experts have warned against re-opening theaters right now, and I implore theater companies to listen to health experts above all other sources first. That being said, “Tenet” is only available to watch in theaters, and as such, there was no way for me to get a review out on it without attending one. I saw the film in this context.
Well, it is finally here. After three years of waiting, a stare-down between the film and its original release date of July 17, multiple two-week delays, three trailers, and an unusual release strategy both for its director and the studio (international first and then domestic), Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has hit theater screens across the U.S. for three nights of preview showings before its official opening on September 4, 2020. Shrouded in secrecy, and with a director whose marketing teams are notoriously evasive of any kind of spoilers or plot revelations, the film’s actual plot would take a week to describe to those who haven’t watched the film even if I were allowing for full spoilers throughout this review. For now, however, all I can say of the plot of Tenet is this: it stars John David Washington as an unnamed protagonist attempting to prevent World War III while armed with only one word (“Tenet”), and the knowledge that a Russian national named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is somehow involved in the mechanics of its actualization. Even then, I feel as if I may have given a bit too much away. Nevertheless, there it is. The film also stars Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Michael Cane, Martin Donovan, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Nolan has a lot riding on this movie; besides being the first mega-release to re-open theaters across the country, it’s his first feature not based on a real-life event since Interstellar in 2014 (a film which has aged somewhat poorly on a narrative level), and easily the most ambitious project he’s ever taken on from a technical standpoint, especially given the conceit of time inversion in motion being an incredibly difficult thing to pull off on screen with as few visual effects shots as this movie supposedly has (the final report on the film, per Nolan, states that it contains less than 200, which numbers fewer than some romantic comedies). Simply put, the stakes for Nolan and company could not be higher. And while there certainly are some minor issues with this film that make it a tad difficult to process during the initial viewing, Tenet reinforces with gusto that Nolan’s technical acumen has now approached a level of unquestionability even for his usual detractors.
On a purely technical level, Tenet is about as close to a masterpiece as one can get. The sound mixing itself can be a bit frustrating, as characters are occasionally rendered inaudible by the score and other sounds happening around them (though that’s not to say that when certain characters are wearing masks, their dialogue wouldn’t be realistically inaudible, but y’know, pick your battles), but this is really more of a minor inconvenience than it is an inherent flaw in the storytelling. (Incidentally, the score from Black Panther and Creed composer Ludwig Göransson is actually quite great, and easily enhances the intensity of every scene, so it’s not so much the music itself as the mixing of it with the rest of the film that’s the problem there.) From an editing and visual effects perspective, some of the set pieces and sequences this team was able to pull off are some of the best I’ve ever seen put to film. The first twenty minutes or so post-opening sequence do take their time setting up the mechanics of how everything is supposed to work, and so feel a little slower in comparison to the rest of the film, but once the sequences get going, and the plot gets moving, there is no end to the creativity Nolan is able to display in his set pieces.
Every action sequence steps up the stakes from the one before, and every one is as nail-biting to watch as whatever is meant to come next. There is a moment about halfway through the movie where things begin to become more clear in regards to certain plot elements from the first half, and after that point, there is no room not to lock into what’s going on. You’re either in it, or you’re completely lost, but if you are indeed in, you get to witness some of the most impressive action filmmaking ever put to screen – it’s as if you’re seeing Nolan’s take on James Bond, his time displacement tricks from Dunkirk, and his version of the most intense sections of Michael Mann’s Heat all wrapped up into one unified vision, and that vision is as mind-blowing to watch as it is perplexing to unravel.
The performances in the film are all universally to be commended as well. True, the characters aren’t quite as well-developed as they perhaps should have been, but the performances of the actors involved mostly make up for the slack enough that it didn’t quite bother me to the level it might bother others. John David Washington continues to prove himself more than capable of carrying a film (as he did with Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman in 2018) but with Tenet, he also proves himself to be a more than capable action star. Some of the fight choreography in this film is so involved, it’s amazing that it comes across as clearly as it does in the execution, even if the mechanics of that execution are a bit much to wrap one’s head around, and Washington plays a major part in establishing that clarity.
The other performances are really great as well, with Robert Pattinson easily having the most fun in his supporting role after coming alongside JDW early on in the film. Elizabeth Debicki is really the heart and soul of the movie as wife to Kenneth Branagh’s character and mother of their young son. She gets more of the emotional moments (however few of them there are) to shine, and she more than rises to the challenge, though it is slightly unconvincing when she’s meant to become attached to JDW’s character in a deeper sense, since the characters themselves never really have a larger connection than that of their own to the plot at hand. The unsung scene-stealer, though, is Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator. Many critics have stated that he does go a little over-the-top in his performance, and in a scene or two, that would be true (though not by as much as those same critics seem to imply), but to be honest, it never really bothered me that much. Sator is a cold, vengeful, and terrifying character to inhabit and to watch, and Branagh’s steel demeanor in most of his scenes is positively chilling to experience. I understand the criticisms that he might have overdone it a little, but in time, I have a feeling his will come to be regarded as the most underrated performance in the film. There is a time and place for flare, even in subtler performances, and Branagh brings everything he has to the table. Dimple Kapadia, too, steals almost every scene she’s involved in, but she’s not actually in the film that much on the whole, so her performance (while great) doesn’t ultimately leave that much of an impression as Branagh’s does. Also (and this is a bit of a nitpick), Himesh Patel isn’t in the movie quite as much as I would have like, even though him mostly not being involved makes sense from a plot perspective, and this movie is practically all plot.
Where Tenet struggles the most is exactly where you might expect a post-Interstellar Nolan film to do so, with its characters. As established before, Nolan has always been more concerned with what movies can do and how they do it than with the characters moving around inside what’s being done, but that doesn’t mean the absence of some character development isn’t noticeable. It’s not that the characters as they’ve been written are somehow unfit for the story being told, only that some of the more emotional stakes of the film (such as those with Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington’s characters) weren’t really as convincing as they could have been, and didn’t hit quite as hard as they should have for this movie to be as masterful as it had the potential to be on all fronts.
The film also gets a little heady in the first half hour or so, to the point where if one takes their attention away from what’s happening for even one minute, you will be totally lost for about the next ten minutes before deciding to just let it go and enjoy the ride you’re already on, which is moving extremely fast. Smart sci-fi action blockbusters that make the audience think are great things, and I adore when a director trusts the audience to figure things out for themselves, but there does come a point eventually where things can get a little too complex for an audience to just figure things out along the way, and with Tenet moving as fast as it does, even the more exposition-centric dialogue can be difficult to process before we’re already in the middle of the next action sequence. Pacing like that in Tenet, which runs at 2 hours and 20 minutes and never feels tired for even a second, is something a lot of films would do well to aspire to, but moving too fast in a film with as complex a plot as this one can also isolate a lot of viewers in their first go-round. One of the characters in the film states early on: “Don’t try to understand it; feel it,” and while that’s all well and good for the characters in the story, audiences can’t feel something like the time inversion in this movie, so understanding it is all we can do, and it’s going to take a few watches to feel as if I understand even half of what goes on. Tenet is something I want to see a second time for sure, but I shouldn’t feel like I’m required to in order to get it.
All that being said, Tenet is still a mind-blowing spectacle of editing, visual effects, and action choreography, and the exact kind of boundary-pushing cinematic experiment we’ve come to expect from Christopher Nolan at this point that still manages to feel as if he’s at the height of his technical ambitions. The performances are all great, even if the characters aren’t as well developed as would be ideal, but what one comes to this movie for is the spectacle, and on that, it delivers and then some. While it moves a little fast for some, especially in the first half hour, by the halfway point, you are all in, and it is one hell of a thrill ride all the way to the finish.
I’m giving “Tenet” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.