Tenet is a James Bond-esque action thriller that delivers on all the fronts we’ve come to expect from a Christopher Nolan film: grand visual spectacles, riveting action sequences, a whole lot of science, and a Michael Caine cameo. However, where Tenet rings hollow is in its story, and the film’s complex plot doesn’t help – it’s almost as if Nolan’s plan to save the cinema is to design a film complicated enough you have to see it twice, but will audiences take the bait?
John David Washington, who exudes the same charisma of his father, plays “The Protagonist”, a secret agent tasked with preventing World War III. “Nuclear holocaust?” “No. Something worse.” Protagonist is aided by a delightfully mysterious British ally in Neil, played by Robert Pattinson (who just can’t seem to lose right now). As far as plot goes, this is all you need to know heading into the film – the stakes are high and for the majority of the film we are as much in the dark with what the hell is going on as our protagonist is. After finishing Tenet, Inception almost feels elementary.
One of the many things I enjoy about Christopher Nolan’s style of filmmaking, is that he likes to open his films with a bang; his introductions are unparalleled (for ex: the bank heist in The Dark Knight, the crumbling Japanese castle in Inception, or the plane hijacking in The Dark Knight Rises). We are introduced to Tenet at an opera house, where Protagonist leads a siege against an apparent terror attack; the scene is heart-pounding. Terrorists destroy cellos, the audience is knocked out by a gas, and what was initially a rescue mission becomes a race against time before bombs blow the opera house to smithereens. But what completes the scene is the track that goes over it. Typically, Hans Zimmer is the composer of Nolan’s films, however, because of scheduling issues he could not score Tenet. Ludwig Göransson, who composed works for Black Panther and Disney+’s The Mandalorian, is asked to fill Zimmer’s shoes and does so exceedingly well; his score is full of energy and is brimming with intensity, it’s as if Zimmer scored the film himself.
The opening to Tenet sets the bar high for the rest of the film, and while the film is heavy with exposition and explanation, we do get to witness some other great sequences such as an inverted fist-fight (I cannot imagine the difficulty of the choreography), a car chase involving one car chasing in reverse, and if you have seen any behind-the-scenes footage you probably already know, the crashing of an actual Boeing 747 into an airport. There is no shortage of spectacular action in Tenet.
However, where Tenet falls short is in the same areas Dunkirk did; Dunkirk was an intense recreation of war that put you right on the beaches of France but felt emotionally hollow, and so left less of an impact on the viewer than say Inception or Interstellar. In favor of Dunkirk, one could argue that the lack of character development in the film was representative of the faceless nature and cold reality of war, that the men on the battlefields were no longer their own individuals but rather units in a greater army. You cannot make the same argument for Tenet; it’s almost inexcusable but not necessarily for a lack of trying.
Elizabeth Debicki, a standout performer in Steve McQueen’s Widows, continues to flash her talent in Tenet as Kat, a wife trapped via blackmail in an abusive relationship. John David Washington’s “Protagonist” needs to go through her to get to her husband, Andrei Sator, a villain played with great vigor by Sir Kenneth Branagh (if you’ve seen any of his Shakespeare adaptations to film, you should have a rough idea of what to expect). What ultimately ends up happening is a tug-of-war over Kat between Sator and Protagonist, and she remains in the middle of it little more than a damsel needing saving. Her plight is supposed to be the compelling emotional drama at the heart of the film, but Kat is instead manipulated at almost every turn and the intentions behind Protagonist’s commitment to rescue her are vague, giving us little to care about. Where Nolan lacks on the page, he makes up for on the camera, but I can’t help but feel like Tenet could’ve benefitted from more story.
The safety of going to a movie theater in this pandemic-stricken environment is debatable, and many people are understandably cautious about returning to the cinema. And if you are willing to take the chance, then knowing it’s worth seeing the film you’re going to becomes more important than ever before. Tenet is a flashy puzzle that demands to be seen on the big screen, and so does its director; the power of IMAX filmmaking cannot be fully appreciated until it is witnessed. So, if you do find yourself venturing out to see Tenet at a theater near you, the best advice I can give comes from a line in the movie: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it”. 8.5/10