Christopher Nolan’s high-profile career has reached a point where every new movie of his is buzz-worthy. Every new project grabs headlines and energizes the box office. Each new film leave both critics and moviegoers eager to talk, write, scrutinize, hypothesize, and debate. And whether you like his style or not, his movies have become events especially for those of us who proudly call ourselves Nolan fans.
So naturally when I first heard of “Tenet” I was elated. When it was understandably delayed I was dejected. But now that I’ve finally seen it I’m ecstatic. Why? Because “Tenet” is an incredible experience and unlike anything you’ve seen before. “Tenet” is indelibly a Nolan picture through and through – smart, cerebral, highly original, insanely well-made, and full of big ideas. Like many of his other films it won’t be for everybody. In fact it may be his most inaccessible. But who can deny the amazing craftsmanship and cinematic wizardry Nolan (once again) showcases?
“Tenet” isn’t just highly anticipated. It’s also considered to be an important film particularly in this current COVID-19 global landscape. After being closed for months hurting movie houses and theater chains around the world are depending on “Tenet” to revitalize big screen enthusiasm while giving much-needed boosts to their bottom lines. Meanwhile moviegoers have set sky-high expectations which his film (and no other film for that matter) could ever fully reach. In those regards “Tenet” may not be in the most enviable position. But I see Nolan, a consummate professional at his craft and an ever-growing student of cinema, fully embracing those lofty responsibilities.
Nolan’s latest mindbender sees him once again pushing blockbuster boundaries, many that he helped set. With a massive overall budget eclipsing $300 million and an even bigger vision, “Tenet” is the filmmaker’s biggest movie to date. It’s essentially a spy thriller that takes many of the genre’s elements and turns them on their heads. And it features yet another star-studded cast rich with fresh faces and some Nolan favorites. Leading them is John David Washington, a terrific young-ish actor with an exceptional pedigree (he’s the son of Denzel). Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Cane, Clémence Poésy, Dimple Kapadia and Aaron Taylor-Johnson round it out.
Nolan has always enjoying playing around with time, but in “Tenet” he has a field day. It’s key to note this is not a time travel movie. Instead it deals with a concept called time inversion. It’s an integral part of Nolan’s story and essential to understanding the movie’s dense and shifting plot. In the future an Oppenheimer-esque scientist develops an algorithm that can cause objects to travel back in time. Overwhelmed by the catastrophic impact such a creation could have (namely the destruction of reality as we know it), the scientist splits the algorithm into nine pieces, hides them in different places in the past, and then commits suicide. This ‘inversion’ turns out to be the marrow of Nolan’s story. It’s the cause of the conflict, it’s what drives the antagonist, and it’s the only way to save the world.
It all begins with a stunning prologue set at a Ukrainian opera house. Oozing charisma, Washington plays a CIA agent known throughout the film only as the Protagonist. He and his small team of operatives arrive at the opera house to rescue an exposed government asset from a terrorist group during a symphony performance. During the extraction the Protagonist is saved from a terrorist’s bullet by a mysterious masked man in search of an artifact. The man gets away but the Protagonist and his team are captured and tortured by the baddies. But instead of giving away his colleagues, the Protagonist takes a cyanide capsule.
He wakes up to even more shadowy figures who tell him the cyanide capsule was fake, his team is dead, and he has passed their group’s test. He is informed of something called Tenet and learns that the group’s scientists have discovered inverted bullets. Fearing the possible dangers, the group tasks the Protagonist with tracking down who is inverting ammunition and for what reason. The trail leads him to a Russian arms dealer named Sator (a cold and quietly menacing Branagh) who may be communicating with the future. The Protagonist tries to get close to Sator through his estranged wife Kat (Debicki) but that proves tougher than anticipated. So he and his recruit Neil (Pattinson), who always seems to know more than he’s letting on, use more “dramatic” methods to try and get what they need.
That doesn’t sound too confusing, right? Well you ain’t seen nothing yet. Thermodynamics, the Grandfather Paradox, Temporal Pincer Movements – just some of the subjects you’ll encounter along the way. But don’t worry, it’s not like sitting through a science lecture. Nolan takes a very specific approach to telling his story. He begins by bombarding you with information and terminology. Characters are rapidly added, sometimes only for a scene or two, and each have their own unique pieces to add to the puzzle. It can feel a bit overwhelming which seems to be where Nolan wants us. It makes it all the more impressive once those meticulously placed pieces begin to fit together.
The scale of Nolan’s imagination isn’t restricted to just the storytelling. As you would expect “Tenet” is a technical marvel and a visual feast. Once again working with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan concocts some truly astonishing action sequences. Fist fights, car chases, a crazy stunt with a Boeing 747 – I hate to repeat myself, but these are moments unlike anything you’ve seen before. And two particular scenes involving what are called inversion “turnstiles” are some of the most creative sequences Nolan has ever conceived.
I can think of only one lone complaint I have about “Tenet”. Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson (filling in for Nolan regular Hans Zimmer) puts together an dazzling score. But the sheer volume during a few scenes made hearing the actors next to impossible. And this wasn’t just an issue isolated to my theater. Other than that Christopher Nolan has once again done what he does best – create an exhilarating cinematic experience aimed at wowing you visually and challenging you intellectually. It’s story is sure to be too dense for some, especially those wanting more easy-going blockbuster fare. But for everyone else buckle up, put your thinking cap on, and enjoy the ride. We don’t get movies like this very often. “Tenet” opens wide this weekend only in theaters.
VERDICT – 5 STARS