Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan
Production: Warner Bros., Syncopy
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Platform: Reviewing after watching at the cinema
Release Date: Out Now
“Don’t try to understand it,” says Barbara (Clémence Poésy), “Feel it,” she tells The Protagonist (John David Washington) – yes, that’s his name – early in Tenet, and it’s as though she’s speaking to us too. It’s a description of the time-altering properties core to the film, granting the possibility of moving backwards in time. Not quite time-travel, more reversing your temporal movement. Confused yet?
Tenet is the latest from the acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, known for subverting dimensions; particularly time, for example in Interstellar and Dunkirk. It feels as though Tenet is an evolution of that, running with the central idea to smart, layered, and occasionally over-complicated effect.
Set in nondescript modern times, Tenet opens with the rigorous infiltration of a musical performance, vividly reminding me of the opening to The Dark Knight. It kicks the film off with grounded yet heightened energy; after this excursion, The Protagonist is told of “inverted” objects making their way back from the future, and their potentially world-ending implications. What follows is James Bond-esque, world-trotting to discover and infiltrate new locations and individuals.
In the lead role, John David Washington is superb, portraying efficient proficiency – viscerally put across with an early kitchen fight – and a knowing inexperience of the luxurious, questionable lives he encounters. The Protagonist is earnestly likeable, an important quality given how character insights take a back seat to plot-focused dialogue. Take teammate-becomes-friend Ives (Robert Pattinson); I would’ve welcomed more development of their dynamic.
On the other hand, standout throughout is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), wife of unsettling main antagonist Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). She’s an in for The Protagonist, however the blackmail-fueled control Sator has over her calls priorities of multiple characters into question. In among talk of apocalypse, this emotional edge adds humanity to Tenet.
Meanwhile, the presence of inverted time signifies escalating stakes. It’s an unorthodox cinematic device – imagine certain aspects in reverse: unknown marks in a room could be from actions yet to happen; or a bullet seemingly levitating into a hand may actually be dropped the other way. Whilst Tenet infrequently overshadows itself with intricacies, it also rewards focusing on details.
Action scenes are staggering, mostly practical effects with post-production inversion. Clashing temporal directions bring new meaning to the physics of corridor fights, car chases; Tenet doesn’t hold back – the set pieces consecutively raise the bar of implementing inversion, put on-screen in polished style.
Brilliantly emphasising the experience is the score, a delicately intense mix of staggered notes playing into the time motif. It’s very reminiscent of the gradual audio build-up of Dunkirk, with added contemporary vibes comparable to Inception, to name one.
Tenet is a rough diamond; the central conceit is basis for spectacular flashpoints, yet by over-explaining itself the film loses opportunity to inform character development. The innovative filmmaking is an impressive showcase for how to surprise within a medium and genre. When Tenet focuses on the intricate and strikingly-structured story it has to offer, it’s a thriller quite different to any other.