Arriving after repeated delays, Tenet has been hailed as the film to save cinema. This is, of course, a completely unfair expectation that no one film could ever hope to achieve. A far more pertinent question is whether or not Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-frying adventure is worth the wait. For this reviewer, the answer is a resounding yes.
For audiences that have been missing the cinematic experience, Tenet is the perfect way to return, as it is an experience best suited to the cinema. The opening sequence of a hostage crisis at a Kiev opera house sets the tone, as masked gunmen storm through an orchestra pit, armed police instantly respond, terse instructions and code words are passed, and gun fire breaks out in controlled, sporadic bursts. It is a dizzying and arresting opening, thundering through the viewer’s consciousness and allowing little time for orientation. Strap in and keep up, the ride is just beginning.
From this opening seizure of awareness, the film doesn’t so much hop as skip around the globe, from the North Sea to London to Mumbai to Oslo to the coasts of Italy and Vietnam and, appropriately enough, back again. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema lenses these locations in dazzling detail, possibly only outshone by the haute couture sported by the characters. As the unnamed Protagonist, John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) wears a suit as finely as his unflappable cool that puts James Bond in the shade. Working within the framework of an espionage thriller, Tenet ticks all the boxes of its franchise brethren, with the added bonus of Nolan’s typical concerns of the intersection between time and memory.
On the one hand, these generic pleasures of the locations, costumes and set pieces offer the kind of grand scale well suited to the cinematic experience. On the other hand, sometimes the skipping between these aspects is so quick that there is insufficient time to become invested in the scenery or follow the expository dialogue. A noticeable problem is the sound mixing that sometimes emphasizes the deafening sound effects or Ludwig Göransson’s crashing and exhilarating score to such an extent that you cannot actually hear what people are saying. This problem becomes more prominent in the latter stages of the film when characters wear breathing masks that obscure their lip movements. This aspect makes the film oddly apt for a post-lockdown moment, but also further obscures the dialogue, beyond even Tom Hardy’s delivery as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Speaking of obscuration, the viewer looking for rounded and absorbing characters may well be disappointed. Nolan’s films are sometimes called chilly or unemotional and, while that would be unfair to say of “Memento,” “Inception” or the anguish-inducing “Interstellar,” it is a fair criticism of Tenet. Such is the pace of the movie that there is rarely sufficient time to engage with characters. The film seems to acknowledge this during a key moment when scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy, “Resistance”) instructs the Protagonist not to try and understand the film’s central gimmick, the concept of temporal inversion. Some audiences and critics have commented on not thinking too much being the best way to watch the film: Don’t think too much and rather feel your way through. But this can be a problem if one finds the film unemotional from a character standpoint.
As mentioned, the Protagonist is cool and capable, but there is little else to him. The Protagonist’s partner Neil (Robert Pattinson, “The Lighthouse”) offers similar proficiency in intelligence, combat and unusual ways of getting in and out of places, but again serves as a feature within the plot more than anything else. As antagonist Andrei Sator, Kenneth Branagh (“Murder on the Orient Express”) delivers a performance of menace that veers from careful restraint to terrifying outbursts. Most problematically, Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, “Widows”) adds little to Nolan’s typically underwritten female roles. While she is more than the dead wife backstory of “Memento,” “The Prestige,” “Inception,” and “Interstellar,” her role is largely limited to caring about her son. While she does exhibit agency, it is never explained why the Protagonist cares about her so much, or indeed why the viewer should.
However, to return to in the aforementioned scene about not thinking too much, the Protagonist refers to instinct, and instinct may be a better way to characterize how Tenet works with its audience. Rather than deep emotional connections, the film offers a connective experience to the stream of images and sound, the viewer invited to feel the flow in both directions. This flow is most apparent during its key set pieces. From the opening sequence to some extraordinary hand-to-hand combat, from an airport heist to an electrifying car chase and the final massive assault (some of which occur forwards and backwards), Tenet demonstrates once again Nolan’s faith in the cinematic form as well as his confidence in the viewer’s ability to engage with this form. As the Protagonist strikes, ducks and weaves, so do we. As buildings rattle from explosions, so do our teeth. As cars spin and somersault, we gasp and hold our breath before crashing back to earth. And as events unfold in reverse to what we expect, so must we embrace this strange new world in order to operate within it.
Although the visceral thrill of its high points is magnificent, overall Tenet lacks the Swiss watch rigor of “Inception,” at times fumbling much like “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Interstellar.” Interestingly and like these films, it falters in terms of its larger scope, suggesting that Nolan is at his best when focused on small scale events that reference the wider consequences rather than depicting massive events in all their grandeur. Even “Dunkirk” focused on individual dramas while placing the wider events as the backdrop. With Tenet, the forward thrust of the Protagonist is strong so long as the viewer is along for the ride, whereas the referencing to globe-spanning events across the whole of time is less elegantly handled precisely because we are barreling forward (and backward) at breakneck speed. However, despite its problems, Tenet is still a hugely enjoyable experiential adventure of espionage, ego and eruptions of various sorts, and certainly tempting enough to warrant a second viewing. Maybe even backwards.