Nolan films are their own event at this point, and given the situation around Covid and the complete overhaul of the yearly release schedule that’s even truer this time than ever. While Interstellar and Dunkirk didn’t quite hit the mark for me I was still interested in Tenet, Nolan’s earned my butt in seat for interest as well as quality and with the cinemas finally reopened I was definitely in for this one. Thankfully Tenet proved to be worth the wait, it’s the clever blockbuster we’ve come to expect from Nolan and his time-travel take on the spy genre proves to work a lot better than it really should.
The film opens with the unnamed Protagonist – who for the sake of efficiency I shall be calling John Doe (John David Wasington) from here on out – on a mission that gets blown, forcing him to take a suicide pill. It later turns out to be a fake and John is brought back into the field, given only a code phrase, tenet. It’s through this that John learns about a series of objects found that have had their entropy reversed through a form of radiation, essentially objects that move backwards in time while their handlers move forward.
Tracking the bullets to a Russian arms dealer called Sator (Kenneth Branagh), John teams up with British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) and tracks down Sator’s abused wife Kat (Elizabeth Debecki) in the hopes of using her to get to Sator. But the closest John and Neil get to the truth of how Sator is reversing the time flow of objects, the more they realise that they’re trying to stop something terrible from happening, if it hasn’t happened already.
Like most Nolan films I’m keeping a lot back from the main story, it’s difficult to really talk without spoilers so let me try and break it down as best I can. The first half of the film didn’t immediately grab me, I was enjoying myself, nothing was wrong with the story, but it moves at a very fast pace and essentially boils down to two heists planned one after the other. Both heists are fun and play out very well but being so close to each other it made things a little repetitive, but then the film twists, it fully embraces it’s timeline f**kery and from there on out – once I was able to wrap my head around said timeline f**kery – I was hooked on what the film was offering.
Like all good time travel movies it includes some good use of recontextualisation, some of it better than others, a couple plot twists I was able to figure out ahead of time but the film makes them work regardless. Most impressively was that unlike Inception – and don’t get me wrong, I love Inception – this was more economical in its pseudo-science, often letting action speak louder than words. There’s a lot that’s never given a full explanation and I bet if I look again the logic won’t be perfect, but the set-up is strong enough to keep me interested and the pay-off is played well enough to carry the film afterwards. I liked what Nolan was offering here and I think it’s one of his better writing jobs to date.
The acting was good, a lot of names relegated to one or two scenes but the main players all gave strong performances. Washington took the lead as the unnamed protagonist, who I’m still calling John. John was an interesting sort, he was cocksure of himself but Washington’s charisma paired well to keep him from sounding like a dick. He wasn’t above using people as a means to an end, as shown by his treatment of Kat, but he also made sure to deal with the fallout of his actions. With Kat he showed a strong protectiveness since it was his fault she ended up in as much trouble as she did. It was refreshing to have a main character still be morally good but have shades of grey in his heroics: he wasn’t perfect, he made mistakes, and his lack of understanding about the timeline backfired. However, this is a whole new ballgame so it made sense of John to still be working out the kinks which is where Washington shines, his ability to balance utter confusion with surefire badassery mixed together better than expected.
Neil came through as John’s partner in time, armed with a British accent and a playful demeanour. There’s elements of Neil that keep you guessing about him, but for the most part you’re entranced by his attitude, there’s a very dry sense of humour to him that probably comes part and parcel with the job he’s in, joking about dying and seeing a lighter side to darker moments. But none of that takes away from him as a character, if anything it improves him as a human. As an agent, he’s committed to the job, even if that job includes crashing a plane into a building. It’s a decent role for Pattinson and one of the best recently to show off a lighter side of him, which we’re gonna need if Emo-Batman becomes a big thing.
Debecki’s Kat was the emotionally and physically abused wife of villain Sator. I wasn’t completely sold on Kat at first, some of her decisions during the first half felt emotionally charged, understandably, but foolish in the long run of things. But the more I saw of her and just how much Sator had damaged her the more I felt for her and what she’d been through. Debecki has this look about her that perfectly captures the pain and despair that an abused wife has gone through and the turn her character takes and she starts going on the offensive is when I knew I was going to enjoy seeing where Kat goes.
Rounding out the main set was villain Sator, as a performance Branagh is great, he makes Sator out to be a truly despicable prick – he’s cold, ruthless, unfeeling and utterly hateable whenever he’s on screen. As a character though, I think he’s lacking a little bit, his motivations aren’t revealed until near the end and they feel like an afterthought when they almost could’ve made him that little bit more interesting. Without spoilers there’s a very Thanos style to him but where Thanos wore that with pride and made himself one of the best villains of the modern era, Sator hides behind his bastardry and doesn’t let us get to see that side of him. Like I said though, Branagh’s cold as ice performance makes up for that and he makes Sator hateable enough to work through any problems with the writing.
Of course this is still a Christopher Nolan movie and he delivers once again, from a purely entertainment standpoint this is probably the most enjoyable film Nolan has put out since Inception, the set-pieces are all incredible to watch and given Nolan’s tendency for practicality the realism is easily felt through the screen. The aforementioned plane-crash gives us a nice early kick as John and Neil try to break into a Free Port, using the plane – a real 747 by the way – as a distraction with the added tension of having to hold their breath to avoid the toxic fire suppressant gas. This was helped even further by our first proper look at reversing time on an actual person as John gets into a backwards fistfight. Things improve from there as not long afterwards John and Neil are tasked with stealing nuclear materials for Sator, resulting in a pretty damn incredible highway heist with the target van boxed in by trucks while still moving. The film pulled out a double-cross with Sator putting his backwards driving car into the mix, and then after a short breather we’re right back into the same scene but from a different perspective from John that sheds light on how the timeline f**kery works and where it puts everyone in correlation with events.
It is a strange concept to wrap your head around but once you get the basis of how it works, the result works really damn well for providing you with a new level of action movie that keeps you on your toes. The highway heist is the film’s best scene but it sets the stage for the finale and what is called a ‘Temporal Pincer Move’, requiring two separate teams moving forward and backwards through team simultaneously, and being able to keep track of the several different timelines together is key for getting the most out of the finale, it’s a lot to take in but the film rewards you for sticking with it.
If I had any real complaints, I’d say that as much as I enjoyed seeing old scenes with new eyes – the inverted rescue mission being a definite highlight – I think Nolan made it a little too easy to catch onto a few things. The finale in particular had two separate twists which I was able to catch onto fairly quickly. But on the other hand, Nolan doesn’t play them out as huge twists. One of them he gives you a little bit to work on without spelling it outright while the other doesn’t get a big reveal scene but still counts as a moment that resets your thoughts on the people involved. It goes back to what I said about Nolan being more economical with his writing and I hope that he takes from this and expands further.
To be absolutely clear, I have no issues with Interstellar or Dunkirk, I think both are good films with some great moments. But personally, Tenet is the Nolan film I’ve been waiting almost ten years to see, an intelligent blockbuster with enough brains and enough guts to stand out in the crowd. The story is gonna need a few more viewings to fully unlock but on first viewing the explanation of timeline f**kery and how it translates into the spy genre worked well, Washington and Pattinson made for a fun double-team with Debecki providing a long suffering heart and Branagh’s its cold, brutal villain. Nolan’s trademark excitement is on full display here with some of the most interesting action scenes of his career to date, it’s not a perfect film, but it’s one I want to see again soon.
I am giving TENET a 4 ½ out of 5 Hairpieces!
#Tenet #TenetMovie #moviereview