26th August 2020 (UK)
Armed with only one word -- Tenet -- and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Regardless of whether you consider yourself a Christopher Nolan (Interstellar, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Dunkirk, The Prestige) fan or not, you have to admire that he’s a man who sticks to his guns. With Tenet’s release date pushed back several times as a result of Worldwide cinema closures, there came calls for Nolan to let Tenet be released onto digital platforms. But Nolan held strong and refused to give up on a theatrical release, and lo and behold – Tenet became the first big blockbuster of the year to hit theatres after many other films had already opted out. Nolan was right to push for Tenet to be released theatrically, not only because of the boost to theatres and the industry, but because Tenet is definitely a film designed for the big screen experience.
Tenet is a film that has been clouded in mystery, with trailers not giving much away, and audiences have been careful to avoid any potential hints as to what Nolan’s latest has to offer. You can rest well assured that this review will not contain any plot spoilers. Firstly, because I hate spoilers and everything that they stand for, but also because I don’t think I could even explain Tenet if I tried.
If you have gone to see Tenet or are planning to, then it is highly likely that you are familiar with Nolan’s filmography. Nolan is known for his complicated, multi-layered plots and labyrinthine narratives, and Tenet is no different. Early on, one character says to our protagonist, “Don’t try to understand,” and that is a sentiment that I would echo. The more that you try to understand Tenet, the more that it baffles you. It is not that Tenet is completely out of the grasp of understanding or that it is intellectually above the audience, but it is incredibly convoluted and involved.
For the first act, I was certainly feeling pretty bewildered and there is a chance that Tenet will immediately alienate many audiences. Although there is a lot of exposition in an attempt to explain what is going on, this doesn’t always translate to any lightbulb moments of clear understanding. Regardless, personally I felt that the more the story evolved, the more I started to get to grips with it. And by the finale, I felt like I probably had as good of a grip on the plot as anyone could, but that didn’t come without careful concentration. Tenet is not an easy watch film to relax to – this is complex cinema that tests its audience throughout.
Tenet also makes use of a loud, busy and imposing score and sound mixing. This adds to the film’s cinematic appeal and makes Tenet even more of an exciting theatrical experience. However, this is also another element that may alienate audiences to Tenet even further – the sound often obscures the dialogue and makes it harder to decipher. With Tenet already pretty tricky to understand, any missed dialogue is not ideal. It is hard to imagine that this was purposeful, I presume that the film just sounded different in the editing suite. Of course, with Nolan, the master of mind games, it is impossible to know for sure.
One thing that it doesn’t take a masters in physics to understand, is that Tenet has a great cast and performances. John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) has a great screen presence in this and leads the film really well. Though we never really get to know his character in any way other than on a surface level, this makes sense within Tenet’s narrative and his character still inspires enough within the audience to be invested in him and his mission. Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse, Water for Elephants), often the subject of unmerited criticism, yet again shows his range and talent in a role which provides a few moments of light-hearted relief. For me though, the standout performance in this comes from Elizabeth Debicki (Widows, The Cloverfield Paradox). She is a powerhouse in this, showing both strength and despair in equal measure and is a character that the audience can really get behind. I was completely invested in her throughout.
Tenet is without a doubt a film that will divide audiences. It is inaccessible, it is loud and is hard work to watch. It is a film that feels indulgent on Nolan’s behalf and it is a film that will likely leave a lot of audiences emotionally cold – Tenet keeps the audience at arm’s length and it does feel like it couldn’t care less if you are keeping up or not.
With all that being said, personally I loved it. Yes, Tenet is indeed all the above but from the opening scene, I was fascinated. My perception from the trailers and few details that I did know, was that Tenet was an action thriller. Very early on as I was watching the film and struggling to decipher what was going on, I realised that Tenet made so much more sense when I thought of it as a sci-fi film instead. Perhaps that sounds a bit silly, but suddenly that errant thought transported me into the film entirely and though it still challenged me, I felt challenged in a positive way.
But above even that, one of the aspects that I loved most about Tenet is that beneath all the blockbuster bravado, noise and complexity, there emerged something so incredibly simple that I thought that it was genius. Tenet may be presenting itself as nothing but this big, posturing film full of scientific theory and principles of inversion, but slowly it becomes apparent that the strongest force of all, a force that cannot be messed with is that of parental love. What a parent might do for a child is something that physics couldn’t even hope to explain.
Film can be so many things and watching a film can evoke a number of emotions and feelings. Often watching a film can simply be entertaining and a way to pass a few hours, which is great. However, when films come along that really make you think and challenge you, for me that is something that I really enjoy. Tenet employs the blockbuster elements of massive set pieces and incredible effects and combines them with a plot that could rightly be called absurd, yet there is something about Tenet’s absurdity that is intriguing and mesmerising.
Tenet is a cacophony of noise and an explosion of visuals that are almost impossible to keep track of. Nolan has given audiences a masterpiece – perhaps a flawed one but a masterpiece, nonetheless.
A certified cinematic spectacle
Strong screen presences of Washington and Pattinson
Show-stealing performance from Elizabeth Debicki
Unrelenting and convoluted plot likely to alienate many audiences
Sound mixing makes already-difficult & jargon heavy dialogue indecipherable at times