REVIEW: “Tenet” (2020)

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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?

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers

“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.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers

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.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers

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.

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Photo Courtesy of Warner Brothers

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

5-starss

5star

33 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Tenet” (2020)

  1. Like you, I’ve been looking forward to this film for months. I’m already expecting to be blown away–one of those films I’ll have to watch three times to catch all the levels and nuances of the plot. Great review, Keith. I’m glad you liked it so much.

    • Thanks Cindy. It’s a mind-blower for sure. I know there are some that found the story too complicated which I can understand. He’s never done a film quite so dense and layered. But all the pieces are there and once they start coming together…WOW.

  2. Did you catch this one in a theater, Keith? I’d like to do the same, but COVID anxieties are kind of holding me back. 😷☹️

    Anyway, if you like these kinds of really confusing and dense movies, then I’d highly suggest checking out Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” (I know I’ve already recommended this movie to you in the past, but it’s worth bringing up here again). It’s definitely not the easiest thing to understand or digest at first (watching it at least twice is essential), but once you put the pieces together, it’s actually really brilliant.

    • I did see it in the theater. On a big XD screen. I understand the COVID anxieties. What set my mine at ease was going over my favorite theaters strict protocols involving cleaning, distancing, masks, hands-free everything, etc. They actually go well beyond our state’s guidelines which I really appreciate. Unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case for every theater so it’s impossible to recommend people return to the cinema. But if they do a good job at creating a safe environment, then I’m good to go.

  3. Also, I really don’t see why Ludwig Göransson’s score had to be mixed so highly that you occasionally couldn’t hear the characters’ dialogue. “Uncut Gems” had multiple scenes of people yelling at each other with loud electronic music playing in the background, but you could still understand what they were saying (and what was even going on in general). Seems like a pretty misguided stylistic choice to me.

    • I’m a bit baffled by it too. I can’t imagine it was intentional, but at the same time I’m a bit stunned that it was missed before sending it out. I’m seeing several people mention the same issue. Thankfully there weren’t many instances where it bothered me.

  4. Well I want to see it, of course, twiddling about with time is always fun, and Inception was a masterpiece so I presume he’s gone beyond that now. The warning re score v vocals is good thanks, subtitles all the way then! when eventually it’s done the rounds and gone to streaming.

    • I love hearing the words “Inception was a masterpiece”. I soooo agree. This isn’t up there with Inception but it is utterly brilliant. But as I wrote, have your thinking hat on. He reeeeeally pushes the twists and turns in this one. But as it all starts to come together…WOW.

  5. I love how everyone is getting to see this movie. Except us in New Jersey, where churches are able to reopen but not cinemas. Tell me, please, how that makes any goddamn sense??

    I’m really getting ticked off at Nolan for doing this. It’s unfair. Besides, he’s losing money on this. Theaters are half-full. At best. Or I’m assuming at best. Who really knows? This entire country is a sham with the way it responded to COVID and I’m just about sick of this having to decide whether to drive to another state to watch this thing or wait until next year before it’s on VOD. This really upsets me. It’s just a movie, of course. But for real. Why does Nolan put us in this position of risking our health? Losing respect for the man, I have to say.

    • That’s a bummer man. Are the theater closings in Jersey a state mandate? And aren’t theaters in New York and California also closed? It’s hard to keep up with what locations are and aren’t.

      • I’m unsure about the status of NY and California, but yes, here in Jersey it’s state mandated, with no end in sight. The best Governor Phil Murphy can do is shrug and say, “I don’t know when.” I understand the need for safety for the masses and respect this state for not rushing back into reopening like some other states have.

        Their line of thinking is the amount of time spent in a single enclosed room watching a movie in public is a unique circumstance, hence the “heightened risk of exposure.” I disagree. Unless worship has all of a sudden changed, and people now get into church, do their thing and get out again in under half an hour, the logic there is questionable. Your local theater by the sounds of it is taking every precaution possible. I don’t see why we can’t do that here.

        Rant over with. Lol. I apologize for tamping down anyone’s enthusiasm with all my negativity here. Honestly, this just speaks to how exciting Christopher Nolan is as a filmmaker. I’m not up in arms about not seeing The New Mutants, or Unhinged, for example.

      • You owe me no apologies my friend. I feel your frustrations. The only reason I have went back to the theaters is due to the extremely thorough protocols my theater has incorporated. Things like completely hands-free exchanges. No cash allowed, no physical tickets, automatic dispensers all through the building, etc. And they have designated workers for each screening room. The monitor the seating and supervise the cleanup after every showing. Also (and this unfortunately is a big deal down here) they actually enforce their mask rules. I have witnessed them turning a man away for no mask as well as tell a couple to wear their masks properly. Without their willingness to do these things I would probably stay home as well.

  6. I really really really want to see this. I love Christopher Nolan and since Batman Begins, I’ve seen everything he had done since as his films are big events. Yet, given the times we’re in and the lack of real safety measures. I’m going to have to sit this one out and maybe wait for it on TV or in a theatrical re-release when this whole pandemic is over.

  7. I’ll definitely be viewing…likely at home. It’s funny, I think I love Nolan’s filmography of 1998-2008, to me his movies were thought provoking but also able to make me feel something. But outside of Interstellar, his movies from 2011-2019 I don’t give a ton of thought to or more than a 2nd viewing. Love them for sheer filmmaking, not always for their characters/plot.

    • That’s interesting and I have heard others share your feelings. I gotta say I’ve had pretty strong emotional reactions to most of his films. Call me a baby, but I tear up at the end of Inception EVERY SINGLE TIME and I’ve seen it countless times. The father/children connection in those last moments hit me hard. And I was/am deeply moved by Dunkirk. I get so sucked into the experience itself that there is an emotional release with its ending I always respond to.

      Interestingly, Tenet doesn’t focus a lot on emotions. Debicki is our emotional center. Instead it’s a melding of genres that is far more interested in challenging us intellectually. But I wouldn’t call it cold either. It’s just a different type of action/adventure (if that makes any sense).

      • Yeah, I’ve heard people (including Chris Stuckmann, who otherwise liked the film a lot) noting that Tenet’s characters aren’t nearly as interesting or fleshed-out as those in Inception, so you not being as emotionally impacted by it makes sense.

      • I would say they aren’t as fleshed out as the characters in Inception but (for me) they are just as fascinating. They bring a lot of mystery but also charisma, especially Washington and Pattinson. And I didn’t talk enough in the review about the acting. Everyone is good but one of the real standouts in Branagh. He absolutely nails his role. So good.

  8. Safety matters, but it all comes in degrees of risk. I will refrain from further comment on the theater situation. The film is a successful piece of movie makings, with sequences that are often astounding. The storytelling is not merely dense, it is impenetrable at times. I don’t see it as being deep so much as overly clever without pulling us in emotionally. I recently Re-Watched all the Nolan films, and I remain impressed with all of them. This one matches the invention of the best, I just thought it was straining at times to be clever, and it does not quite get there.

    • I would agree that it doesn’t really pull us in emotionally, but I was captivated by it narratively. For me it wasn’t that it was impenetrable, but almost overwhelming. It gives you so much information so fast. You have to really keep up to be ready for the twists (and they are aplenty).

  9. I personally loved it. Yes, the story was complexed and confusing at times and the character needed more development, but i thoroughly enjoyed Tenet. Definitely one of the better movies of 2020.

    • As you can tell I’m with you. I’ve thought a lot more about the characters and I kinda like the mystery surrounding them. In fact the story is kinda dependent on most of them being mysteries. You’re right, they could have been more developed, but for this particular story I felt they fit.

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