It feels like ages since we could enjoy a brand new blockbuster experience within a movie theatre. After a long Spring and Summer of lockdowns, social restrictions and business closures however, movie theatres are finally preparing to accept guests again, at least in many parts of the world. Even before that, director, Christopher Nolan stayed adamant about releasing his latest blockbuster offering, Tenet in movie theatres as well, where he insisted it was truly meant to be experienced. This demand stayed firm no matter how many delays Tenet would suffer, and how many of this year’s movies would forego their planned theatrical releases to instead go straight to VOD and/or streaming. In the end though, Nolan got his wish, finally getting to see Tenet squeak into movie theatres within several countries right as the normal Summer movie season would be ending (the one that COVID-19 denied us this year), even if its pivotal domestic release in the U.S. remains delayed for a little while longer.
For cinephiles, Tenet is the perfect movie to welcome them back to all-new theatrical blockbuster releases as well. It’s ambitious, it’s original, and it bends genres and narrative conventions around a truly groundbreaking premise. Such is par for the course for Nolan, naturally, who has built a celebrated career off of crafting some of the most daring, bold and novel blockbusters in recent years. When it comes to Tenet, scientifically high-reaching Nolan favourites such as Inception and Interstellar come to mind, particularly the former, since Tenet at least has the decency to be earthbound, and not quite so bloated as some of Nolan’s other works. Tenet is however a very dense movie, one that demands patience and an open mind, as well as a willingness to try and decipher Nolan’s latest puzzle box of cinematic ideas.
This is where I start to wonder whether Nolan is hitting upon the apex of his current, post-Dark Knight cinematic brand. Tenet feels like a ‘greatest hits’ catalogue for Nolan in many respects, taking especially heavy inspiration from the direction behind Inception, but also incorporating some narrative flourishes from Memento, The Prestige, Interstellar and Dunkirk at the same time. I suppose it would be fair to say then that Tenet is probably the Nolan-est movie that ever Nolan-ed, complete with an almost pretentious desire for secrecy around its plot and marketing. This will be great news to some and eye-rolling conceit to others. In all honesty though, Tenet itself is as much a compelling experiment for audiences as the overall question of whether audiences will truly want to return to theatres during an ongoing pandemic, just to see what Nolan insisted on claiming was so crucial to retain its theatrical integrity. I guess, if nothing else, that’s certainly not boring!
Tenet stars an unnamed ‘protagonist’, rather bluntly referred to as such in fact, played by John David Washington. The Protagonist begins the movie by being recruited into a mysterious organization, who task him with averting an apocalyptic event, and only give him one clue regarding how to do so; The word, “Tenet.” What follows is a trail of metaphysical bread crumbs for the Protagonist, who finds himself learning of a world-changing radiation that literally inverts time, at least to anyone outside of its exposure. As it turns out, this power comes from a devastated future, and has found its way into the hands of a ruthless arms dealer in the present, Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh. The Protagonist must thus attempt to get to the bottom of the mystery behind this time-inverting science, namely by getting close to Sator’s forlorn wife, Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki, who has her own part to play in the over-arching conundrum.
The main cast of Tenet is kept narrow in scope, being themselves perfectly-placed pieces of a tightly-crafted enigma. Every performance in the movie is strong across the board however, with Debicki being a particular standout, portraying the character with the most emotional stakes behind what’s otherwise a bit of an emotionless conflict. Robert Pattinson is also a particular bright spot among the cast, as the Protagonist’s witty, lively handler, Neil. Tenet seems to be the first step behind Pattinson finally shedding his unfortunate mainstream movie reputation as Twilight’s Edward Cullen, a mission he’ll likely fully complete next year, when he plays the coveted titular role in The Batman. Where Washington’s Protagonist stays laser-focused on the mission, Neil thankfully steps in with a bit more heart and personality, thanks to Pattinson providing most of the ‘fun’ behind many of Tenet’s key scenes.
In fact, Tenet is such a specifically crafted production that it’s almost too precise with how it portrays its characters. Every performance may be a good one, but with such a heavy emphasis on Tenet’s philosophical themes and metaphysical musing above all else, some of the intended humanity behind the performances ends up being snuffed out. Again, Debicki and Pattinson are thankfully exceptions to this rule, but even Washington’s Protagonist is more of a player on a board than a fully-fledged human being, right down to not even having a real name! Sure, this is perfectly acceptable in the sense of Tenet using its handful of key characters to carefully unfurl its finely-crafted mystery at the necessary pace, but it’s tough not to want just a little bit more from Washington’s Protagonist, or Branagh’s rugged antagonist, especially when Inception and Interstellar managed to deliver their own envelope-pushing sci-fi with noticeably more humanity.
It’s appropriate that Tenet crafts a taut, micromanaged sci-fi thriller about quantum mechanics and dueling perceptions of linear time, because its story is simultaneously impressive and frustrating. Tenet certainly respects its audience enough to trust that it can follow the increasingly convoluted events surrounding its lead characters, but even then, its dense plotting doesn’t apologize for abandoning any viewers that can’t keep up. Tenet rewards repeat viewings for sure, and isn’t necessarily designed to be fully consumed and understood with just one watch, but it’s no doubt going to be hard to sell people on attending movie theatres more than they otherwise feel inclined to at this point, just to have another chance at wrapping their head around a plot that’s almost triumphantly confusing.
Tenet isn’t impossible to decipher, mind you, and how it comes together especially is legitimately smart, thought-provoking and memorable. The journey to get to that satisfying end result can sometimes be more laborious than it deserved to be though. No matter how you slice it, some portions of Tenet feel over-explained and tediously delivered, even if you’re likely to be among its fans. The impressive, fully hand-crafted action scenes certainly do a solid job of snapping overwhelmed audiences out of their mentally addled stupor, but the dialogue scenes throughout Tenet can vary wildly in terms of clarity and appeal. Once you have all the necessary pieces, and understand their significance, Tenet isn’t all that difficult to comprehend, but it does sometimes get a little too lost in its own self-congratulating love of metaphysics, quantum mechanics and other hyper-advanced scientific theories.
This unfortunately means that the otherwise sharply-conceived storyline of Tenet can sometimes lack the fine balance behind charming wit and abstract reality-warping that made Inception such an instant classic. Still, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Tenet is completely devoid of humour or charm, even if the actors certainly have to do a lot of heavy lifting to add some much needed-personality to Nolan’s own overwrought script. Even then, a few scenes in Tenet are just not as interesting as they want to be, and that’s a shame. Like most of Nolan’s recent works, you’ll need to bring a fair amount of patience to fully appreciate the storytelling in Tenet, but how this movie’s plotting is put together and executed is nonetheless impressive. It just could have done with being a bit less deliberately obtuse in its exposition and dialogue.
Christopher Nolan’s directing style is truly unmistakable, for better or worse. That remains very much true in Tenet, which in turn feels like Nolan’s latest desire to keep expanding his most radical ideas as a cinematic auteur, while not pulling punches for the audience. On the one hand, it’s difficult to deny that Tenet’s direction truly is sublime as well. Clashing time streams, handmade, authentic stunt work and destruction, and purposefully impactful, clue-laden visual cues throughout Tenet are all put together with an obsessive, fully convicted attention to detail. Like I said, Tenet serves as Nolan’s latest cinematic puzzle box, with no piece out of place, and no shot without true significance. Tenet, even considering some of its flaws, remains an esteemed piece of art from a true master of cinema.
Despite that however, Tenet’s direction also sometimes represents Nolan at his most pretentious. It’s clear at this point that Nolan is well aware of his celebrated reputation as a director, and it was only a matter of time before that awareness would lead to some degree of vanity. After Interstellar and Dunkirk paved the way for Nolan to fully break away from following conventional Hollywood rules, Tenet feels like the point where Nolan has truly rejected any filmmaking wisdom that’s not his own. Again, for Nolan fans, that’s fantastic. For everyone else however, Tenet sometimes feels a little overdone from a directing standpoint. It’s dense, confusing and sometimes too aggressive when it comes to demanding audiences wrap their head around its metaphysics-drenched lore. Nolan isn’t under any obligation to be audience-friendly, of course, but it’s getting to the point where Nolan’s movies are a little bit impenetrable for people who aren’t obsessed with the potential power of cinema as much as Nolan himself clearly is.
Still, the fact that Tenet remains proudly original and highly ambitious, even as it deliberately calls back to Nolan’s past cinematic achievements, is nonetheless worthy of awe and applause from a technical standpoint, especially in a modern movie market that’s overstuffed with the same remakes, reboots and sequels. Tenet feels like the kind of experience that’s definitely best enjoyed on the biggest screen possible as well. Those who have the ability to check it out in premium formats like IMAX and UltraAVX should consider doing so, so long as they can handle Tenet’s predictably hard-hitting sound design (more on that in a second), and so long as it’s reasonably safe to do so in their area. If nothing else, Tenet is certainly a passionate labour of love for Nolan, whose direction continues to strive for ever-greater heights, even when it’s sometimes in danger of leaving mainstream blockbuster audiences behind.
Controversially, Nolan’s usual composer mainstay, Hans Zimmer did not return to score the soundtrack for Tenet. You’d think that this would make Tenet feel incomplete as a Nolan smorgasbord, but in reality, new composer, Ludwig Goransson does a very good job of picking up the slack. Goransson’s soundtrack retains the signature droning, overbearing style of many Nolan scores, to the point where you’d be forgiven for not realizing that Zimmer isn’t yet again behind the music suite. This style of music blatantly calls back to Inception specifically, but it appears that Goransson went one step further with his Tenet score, by composing the action scenes in particular with deliberately inverted music. Considering that the one hook made public in Tenet’s marketing is that it involves people who can make time move backwards, this is a cool, distinct musical flourish, and one that helps Tenet’s soundtrack stand out, rather than feel like it’s simply trying to copy the musical stylings of Inception.
In true Nolan fashion however, one must be advised that the rest of the sound design in Tenet is incredibly overwhelming. Nolan once again cranks the sound mixing up to eleven throughout Tenet, making its premium formats like IMAX and UltraAVX feel particularly deafening. Then again, Nolan fans know to expect this, and will probably feel right at home getting their ear drums practically blown out in an IMAX showing of Tenet. As oppressive as it can be though, the audio design in Tenet nonetheless remains engrossing, so long as its sheer loudness won’t be overkill for you. Even in a regular theatre, Tenet’s sound mixing is unapologetically powerful, so those with sensory issues had best exercise caution. Still, I will say in Tenet’s favour that its audio design is nonetheless impeccably done, if you can handle it. Its action scenes are gripping, and its sporadic moments of destruction are truly impressive, despite the surprisingly modest level of visual effects in Tenet’s final product.
Tenet is another incredible cinematic achievement for Christopher Nolan, a fact that practically feels like a redundant statement for Nolan’s successive movies at this point. Despite that however, Tenet feels a little too coldly calculated to achieve its full potential. It falls short of the quality achieved by Nolan’s highlight works such as Inception and The Dark Knight, despite wanting to crib several of its directing flourishes from many prior works under its director’s filmography. Indeed, Christopher Nolan’s unique stamp of convention-pushing cinema feels like it’s practically becoming an unofficial franchise in its own right, albeit one with a very commendable commitment to originality and artistic inspiration. Still, that merely highlights that Tenet sometimes feels more engineered than truly crafted from the heart, and in fact seems to have a brain that’s bigger than said heart.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to love about Tenet, especially if you happen to be a fan of abstract sci-fi that nonetheless maintains a grounded feel. Its storyline, while excessively dense and convoluted, is clearly refined and crafted to an excellent degree, rewarding repeat viewings with an amazing attention to even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant details. Tenet also contains some very impressive action and directing flourishes to boot, relying on an astonishing minimum of CGI and visual aids, to produce a wonderfully hand-crafted thriller that emphasizes sublime stunt work and old-fashioned polish. Even when it’s too obtuse for its own good, Tenet nonetheless remains compelling to watch, and easy to be impressed by.
Therein lies the rub though; Tenet is an impressive production that nonetheless feels like it veers too far into pretense and vanity for Nolan as a director. It’s imperfect, and doesn’t apologize for not going out of its way to accommodate audiences, an issue that will definitely turn some people off. For avid fans of Nolan’s work however, along with viewers that love to be challenged by cerebral sci-fi, Tenet retains Nolan’s courageous commitment to always wanting to push the potential of filmmaking to new creative territory. It’s a lot to wrap your head around, but Tenet does manage to be very cool for those willing to try and appreciate it, while nicely welcoming back true big screen blockbusters with an original opus that effectively flexes the unique strengths of cinema.
- Creative, cerebral mystery that comes together very well
- Dramatic, bombastic action that effectively plays with linear time
- Debicki and Pattinson are highlights among the cast
- Dense, convoluted plotting can be too overwhelming
- Lacks some of the humanity and charm from Nolan's prior works