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‘Tenet’ is an Action-Packed Blockbuster That is Peak Christopher Nolan In Every Way – Review

Review by: Amon Warmann

When the trailers for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet were released, there were three big takeaways. First, and foremost, that Robert Pattinson had inherited his director’s hair and dress sense. Secondly, that the action sequences looked like they’d be worth the price of admission alone. Thirdly, and lastly, but most prevalent: no one had any idea what was going on or what the film was really about.

What little plot we can discern has “The Protagonist” (John David Washington) being inducted into a secret spy organization known as Tenet. He promptly is partnered with fellow shadowy agent Neil (Pattinson) to get to work on stopping the world-ending plans hatched by Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch. Those schemes require harnessing the power of “inversion”, a concept that involves a lot of dialogue about moving backwards through time for something that’s not explicitly defined as time travel. 

Tenet still
John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki in Tenet (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Exactly how inversion works is something that Tenet never quite gets to grips with. Even if you didn’t follow every detail in the similarly complex Inception, in that movie Nolan at least eases you into its mind-bending world so that we understand just about enough before things get crazy. Tenet throws us into the deep end almost immediately, and leaves us scrambling to keep up for over two hours.

The tone is set in the first of several exposition scenes, in which Clémence Poésy’s scientist may as well be looking directly into the camera when she says, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” It might have been easier to do that if Tenet didn’t spend so much time and energy trying to explain itself – often ineffectually, with important dialogue partially drowned out by Ludwig Göransson’s Zimmer-esque score.

Even though understanding of the how remains elusive, it’s hard not to respect the ambitious questions Tenet grapples with – chiefly, if and when to change the future, if you have the means to. It’s peak Nolan, in a good way, and even if some characters are not as fleshed out, his cast convincingly sells the impact of what’s happening at any given moment.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

We don’t learn much more about The Protagonist beyond his selflessness, but Washington is nevertheless easy to root for and his charisma shines through even when he isn’t well-lit. He brings a composure to his performance that’s perfectly suited to the world the movie takes place in, and along with Pattinson’s lightly humorous Neil, it ensures that Tenet never gets overly serious, despite the grim stakes. Elizabeth Debicki impresses too as Kat, Sator’s estranged wife, and through her, Tenet finds its most human story.

It also helps that the dynamic and varied action scenes are almost above reproach. They’re everything we’ve come to expect from a Nolan production – impressively practical, inventive, and filled with tension. In recent months, Tenet has been touted as the film that would herald a mass audience return to cinemas, and there are definitely plenty of eye-popping stunts that showcase why.

But even so, it’s hard to appreciate any given scene in Tenet to the fullest if you don’t understand enough of what’s going on. The bombastic final action sequence is the perfect snapshot of the movie as a whole: it’s fantastic to look at, the special effects are amazing, and on a technical level it’s note-perfect, but it’s impossible to keep track of who and where everyone is. Maybe that will change on repeat viewings (which shouldn’t be needed this badly), but as it stands, that makes Tenet a film that’s easier to admire than to enjoy.

Tenet opens in select markets on August 26th and September 3rd.

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