Tenet (United Kingdom/United States, 2020)

August 28, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Tenet Poster

Christopher Nolan loves playing with time and the fabric of reality. A majority of his non-Batman films have featured mind-bending excursions through the fourth and fifth dimensions and Tenet is no exception. In fact, despite downplaying the sci-fi elements during the first half, this may be the most challenging of Nolan’s films to date when it comes to wrapping one’s mind around the concepts forming the narrative’s foundation: backwards-moving entropy, non-linear thinking, temporal paradoxes. The movie borrows bits and pieces from three of Nolan’s previous efforts (Memento, Inception, and Interstellar) while also at times recalling the likes of Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow (a.k.a. Live Die Repeat) and James Cameron’s Terminator. The film contains some of Nolan’s most ambitious action sequences to-date but one wonders whether the plot density – a not inconsiderable obstacle for some who prefer not to devote their undivided attention for 2 ½ hours – might prove to be problematic.

Tenet offers a glimpse of what a James Bond movie might look like with Nolan at the helm (with an able assist from cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, in his third collaboration with the director, and who was behind the camera for Spectre). Although the concept of “backwards entropy” (in which items move contrary to the natural progression of things, like a bullet “unfiring”) is introduced fairly early in the proceedings, it doesn’t begin to influence the narrative’s trajectory until roughly the halfway point. Up until then, Tenet feels like either a 007 excursion or an installment of the Mission: Impossible movie series. However, once Nolan has lulled audiences into the false sense of security that they’re watching a somewhat traditional action/thriller, he pulls the carpet out from under them. For those who aren’t paying close attention, it may be possible to follow things on the highest level: good guys fight to stop the bad guy from destroying the world. The more fully you comprehend things, especially as they relate to the time travel elements, the richer the tapestry appears. The problem is that it will likely require multiple viewings to fully appreciate the details and the sound mixing (which emphasizes ambient noise and Ludwig Goransson’s occasionally overbearing score) can make the exposition-laden dialogue difficult to decipher. The movie is in English but there were times when I wish it was subtitled.

John David Washington (who co-starred with Adam Driver in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman), in what amounts to a star-making turn, plays an unnamed CIA operative referred to only as “The Protagonist.” After passing a test, he is recruited by a shadowy intelligence organization to save the world from Armageddon. The danger isn’t a nuclear holocaust, however – it’s a temporal attack. Someone from the future is sending back weaponry that can defy currently-held laws of time. These are being used by Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) to assemble an algorithm that, once finalized, will give him the power of life and death over everything – past, present, and future. Sator is not sane but, when the degree of his insanity becomes evident, The Protagonist recognizes the necessity of stopping him at all costs. He is aided by a small group of allies, including jack-of-all-trades Neil (Robert Pattinson), and Sator’s abused wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who is trapped between thoughts of suicide and murder yet lacks the willpower to move forward with either.

Tenet doesn’t feature a lot of star power. Like Dunkirk, it relies on visual prowess and solid performances by under-the-radar/character actors. Washington is very good and shows multi-octave range, but many won’t recognize him. Post-Twilight, Robert Pattinson has kept a relatively low-profile while honing his craft and rebuilding his reputation. Tenet is in some ways his re-emergence party (a prelude to an even bigger role – one that Nolan is intimately familiar with). And, although Elizabeth Debicki’s profile is on the rise, she’s still just starting up the steep portion of her ascent. This marks the first collaboration of each of these three with the director, but Nolan has brought back a couple “old friends.” Kenneth Branagh (whom he has long admired) gets more screen time than in Dunkirk and, although Michael Caine appears in only one scene, this is the seventh time his face has been seen in a Nolan production.

Perhaps the most surprising performance in Tenet comes from Branagh. Often lauded more for his directorial acumen than his on-screen work, Branagh is usually called upon to play either a supporting player or a tragic (but heroic) figure. Branagh isn’t known for his villainous attributes (although he’s no stranger to wearing the black hat) but the level of malice he exudes as Sator is chilling; the thing that makes him more frightening than cartoonish is the level of loathing and sadism that defines his character. He’s more of a sociopathic misanthrope than a megalomaniac.

Tenet contains a number of top-notch action sequences, any of which could rival the centerpiece moments from a Bond or Mission: Impossible film. The two most impressive involve a runaway jet airliner and a heist facilitated by a convoy of large vehicles. Late in the proceedings, a convoluted conflict involves a strike team that is manipulating time (while their digital clock counts up from zero). A lot of directors understand how to mix a testosterone-and-adrenaline cocktail, but Nolan adds a third ingredient, intelligence, to his recipe.

Considering the unusual circumstances surrounding its release, questions abound about whether Tenet is a must-see big screen experience or whether it can work in more modest setting (like a living room). To be sure, the spectacle elements demand the biggest screen possible to undergo the full sensory experience. The story, however, has been crafted with sufficient care that it will take center-stage when the action has been downsized. Tenet on home video may work in an entirely different fashion than Tenet in a theater. The time-related aspects may be easier to assemble.

Although Tenet doesn’t represent Nolan at his best (for me, that would be Memento, Interstellar, or The Dark Knight), it’s among the director’s most ambitious efforts and is a match for his most narratively complicated screenplays. Whether or not it’s the best way to re-open theaters after a nearly six-month hiatus remains to be seen. (Has too much pressure been placed on its shoulders?)  However, under ordinary circumstances, it would have been among a select group of “must see” releases during the summer of 2020. As things have turned out, it may be the only one.

Tenet (United Kingdom/United States, 2020)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Dimple Kapadia
Home Release Date: 2020-12-15
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
Music: Ludwig Goransson
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:31
U.S. Release Date: 2020-09-03
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Action
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1