Review: Christopher Nolan's explosive 'Tenet' challenges the mind and body
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
A sleek, shiny, and explosive time-bending thriller, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” fits perfectly into his established filmography. Both a confusing and intricate experience, “Tenet” is Nolan firing on all cylinders, an acid trip that plays like a greatest hits album. That’s not a bad thing, but your mileage and enjoyment of the picture will vary on how far down the Nolan rabbit hole you’re willing to go. Per usual, this is a flick that mandates and rewards repeat viewings, because trying to wrap your head around the physics of a Nolan picture - be it “Inception” or “Interstellar” - in one viewing is a daunting task.
That the construct of time is a crucial component in “Tenet” should be no surprise, the director’s debut feature, “Memento,” was told in reverse chronological, with the likes of “Dunkirk” using a ticking clock in the score as a tool to help keep the pressure on the viewer (and of course, the aforementioned “Inception” and “Interstellar” could have textbooks written about them). So perhaps it was inevitable that Nolan, who has been public about his affection for “007,” would write an espionage thriller with some form of time travel.
But it’s not really time travel, it’s a concept that Nolan calls “inversion” - the ability to reverse temporal movement of objects, basically rewinding their path through space and time. It’s ironic that when a character in the film tries to understand how he can “catch” a bullet embedded on the other end of a shooting gallery, and is told to “just feel it” instead of “understanding it” because the viewer will likely be doing the same thing.
Coming off the Oscar winning “BlacKkKlansman,” John David Washington shines as a well-dressed man called The Protagonist when, after a harrowing opening prologue, awakens into the clutches of a secret organization intent on saving the world from what could have been. This isn’t “Back to the Future” where you can travel through time and alter the past, this is serious stuff about the prevention of World War III and nuclear holocaust.
The Protagonist links up with another fellow agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson, looking exceptional) whose operations lead them to Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator, played with a handlebar twirling cheesiness by the great Kenneth Branagh, and his less than happy matriarch, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki who, sadly, becomes a glorified damsel in distress).
This is the closest Nolan has ever come to producing his James Bond flick, borrowing elements from that franchise like tall buildings, taller woman, cool gadgets, and slick gizmos to make “Tenet” tick, but still manages to craft his own unique action sequences that only Nolan can manifest. You wanna see John David Washington and Robert Pattinson bungee jump alongside a building? Check. How about a lean, bare knuckle kitchen brawl where a cheese grater is used as a weapon? Check. There’s even a miraculous stunt where the filmmaker manages to blow up a 747 jetliner across a hanger, and some spectacular car chases where wrecked vehicles flip backwards and forwards instantaneously, courtesy of the plot's convoluted time-bending mechanics. All of which is underscored with ear blasting numbness by Ludwig Göransson’s synthesizing and Oscar worthy score.
Your eyes, like your ears, aren’t going to know when to dodge and weave because the presentation of “inversion” in the form of an action picture is extraordinary. At times, it was hard to believe what I was actually seeing and since it was filmed in Italy, Estonia, Norway, the UK and the United States, “Tenet” has over a dozen beautiful locations at its disposal and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema incorporates them beautifully.
The plot is a bit tireless and exhausting, with pages upon pages of exposition thrown at the actors repeatedly in the hopes audiences members will get it. Those with big brains should be able to follow, but it’s a bit hard to understand the level and intricacies of the narrative logistics if the performers are barely audible. While Nolan advocates to see his films on the biggest screen, with the biggest sound in the biggest auditoriums (he’s mastered the craft of shooting on IMAX cameras and creating mayhem) he often puts his characters in masks and not even the best sound mixer in the business can unmuffle what they’re saying. I lost countless lines of dialogue underneath the, admittedly, great score and gigantic explosions. If anything, “Tenet” makes the case for home viewing more prevalent, because you can switch on closed captioning.
But at least it looks pretty damn cool. Even if I might struggle to fully comprehend the rubix cube style mystery at its center, the level of craftsmanship is unmatched. The final stretch features soldiers racing forward and backward in time, tracking down what is essentially a MacGuffin, and it’s baffling because who else could secure the studio backing and funding to create something this unique, original, and bonkers? Nolan is of a rare breed, a beacon of old time Hollywood movie making where filmmakers and actors aligned with one studio to make their pictures.
He’s got the right cast too: Washington has the look, posture, and suave of a modern day James Bond, next to the future Dark Knight himself Robert Pattinson whose sly candor makes for some budding chemistry. And though Debicki isn’t given as much to do as the leading men, her character actually has real, sizable, stakes in the game. Micheal Caine, who gets top billing, shows up in a blink and you’ll miss it cameo and Branagh is putting that classic Shakespeare training to perfect use as the slimy villain out to destroy mankind.
For the most part, everyone is on a mission doing their own job, never taking a moment to stop and smell the flowers. It isn’t until the final hour of “Tenet” do we start to get the payoff and rewards promised from the beginning. The film is tailor made for unpacking, discourse, and discussion, while solidifying Nolan’s commitment to big screen thrills and chills, purposely constructed with numerous holes to allow for repeat viewings. You might not understand what’s going on half the time, but “Tenet” seems to work at optimal levels when you heed the advice of the characters in the film and just roll with it.
TENET opens September 3rd in theaters across the country that are open.
*** COVID-19: Here at TheOnlyCritic.com, we’re committed to covering theatrical releases, but there’s still inherent risks in regards to going inside movie theaters. Please make sure you look up your local theaters COVID-19 guidelines and procedures before purchasing a ticket, and if you don’t feel comfortable going into a theater please don’t. A positive review of an exclusive theatrical release is not an endorsement to put your health and safety at risk. In most cases, critics receive digital screeners or are invited to socially distanced press screenings, which defers heavily from what you might experience.