A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2020


2020, PG-13, 150 mins.

John David Washington as The Protagonist  /  Robert Pattinson as Neil  /  Elizabeth Debicki as Kat  /  Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator  /  Michael Caine as Sir Michael Crosby  /  Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ives  /  Dimple Kapadia as Priya  /  Himesh Patel as Mahir  /  Clémence Poésy as Laura  /  Andrew Howard as Stephen  /  Yuri Kolokolnikov as Quinton

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan

There's an action sequence in writer/director Christopher Nolan's newest science fiction spy thriller TENET that almost defies simple explanation, but I'll endeavor to do so here without engaging in any tangible spoilers. 

Let's just say that it involves a fist fight.  Seems pretty basic, right?  We have two combatants vying for dominance, which is about as obligatory of a setup as there is in a movie.  However, this one is anything but ordinary.  In it, Fighter A attacks his prey (Fighter B) and perceives all of his movements occurring in normal forward time, but he witnesses Fighter B's actions occurring in reverse.  Concurrently, Fighter B perceives his own movement in forward time and Fighter A's come off as being in reverse to him.   

If you've officially gone crossed eyed and are saying to yourself "WTF?" then...well...you might not be alone. 

TENET may be the perfect companion film to Nolan's brilliant sophomore effort in 2000's MEMENTO (still voted by me as one of the finest films of its decade) in the sense that both heavily involve temporal warping narratives (in one form or another) that bob back and forth in perceived time and somehow fuse together to create some semblance of an understandable whole.  TENET also echoes his last truly great film in 2010's INCEPTION (also voted by me as one of the finest films of its decade) in the way that it blends an ultra high concept premise of mind bending proportions with the accoutrements of the spy thriller genre.  I know of many that thought that INCEPTION was impossibly difficult to understand.  If movies were math then INCEPTION would be basic long division, whereas TENET would be multivariable calculus in terms of comprehensibility.   

I'm still debating if that's a negative thing or not.   

TENET is an awe inspiringly and intimidatingly ambitious sci-fi thriller that segues between being perhaps too smart for its own good or being so utterly convoluted that it frequently doesn't make much tangible sense at all.  It's a technical masterpiece, for sure, and is the kind of film, like a MEMENTO and INCEPTION before it, that will unavoidably inspire endless discussion, debate, and obsessive dissection with future viewers for many, and Nolan deserves full credit for being more fearlessly clever and innovative on a premise and (to an extent) execution level than most of his contemporary filmmakers.  This is as visually breathtaking of a film from the acclaimed director on a level of pure craftsmanship as any on his resume, but it's also a mentally exhausting and draining affair, which I think unfortunately holds it back from attaining true greatness. 

Describing the plot in basic detail will prove...tricky.  The best I could come up with is this: A secret agent working with a clandestine government agency uses newfangled technology to warp time in order to stop a megalomaniacal villain from ending the world as we know it.  Before we get to the meat and potatoes of that, Nolan gives us a sensational opening sequence of real immediate potency.  In it we meet an unnamed protagonist (named in the film as "The Protagonist," played by BLACKkKLANSMAN's superb John David Washington, son of Denzel), who's on a high priority mission to thwart a terrorist attack on a crowd pack symphony in Kiev.  Tragically, he's captured by the enemy and is tortured within an inch of his life...that is until he bites down and swallows a hidden "suicide pill" that he has on him, which would prevent these murderous thugs from extracting information from him. 



Apparently and thankfully, Protagonist miraculously survives and awakens at his headquarters and is promoted because of his willingness to give his life for his country.  He then joins an even more shadowy organization dubbed "Tenet" (which, yes, is a palindrome - a word that's spelt and reads the same backwards or forwards), whose main mission is to stop the nefarious, world ending scheme of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (a deliciously evil Kenneth Branagh) that actually makes nuclear Armageddon look quaint by comparison.  It appears that someone from the future is sending back tech to the past that can allow people to manipulate objects in time (not time travel, but rather time inversion).  The problem with all of this is that the multiple items that have been sent back from the future have been hidden in the past, our present, and require them all to be assembled in order to fully use their time warping abilities.  This, clearly enough, is highly dangerous in the wrong hands, leading to The Protagonist teaming up with a new partner in Neil (a never been looser and more charming Robert Pattinson) to locate the objects in question and stop this madman.  Along the way, they dynamic time hopping duo uses Sator's long suffering and abused wife in Kat (a terrific Elizabeth Debicki) as an ally/leverage to grant them the upper hand.  If they fail to stop Sator then he'll not only have the power to change history, but also decimate reality beyond recognition.  He simply wants the world to end...and for deeply personal reasons. 

The core concept at the heart of TENET is as fiendishly compelling as any that I've come across in the science fiction or spy genre.  There have been innumerable time travel centric films before, but nothing quite like this.  The idea of time inversion is a tough one to explain to the audience, but Nolan does his best - (i.e.) bullets are now caught back in the guns as opposed to being fired out of them, cars speed by in reverse, people stroll or run backwards (as does just about every other animal or creature out there), and, hell, if you experience time inversion at, say, its worst, then you're forced to wear an oxygen pumping mask just to breath because, in backwards time, your biological systems are so screwy that you'll die if you try to breathe in the skewed air.  I mean, like, wow.  Watching this film in the middle of our current pandemic with a mask on in the cinema (TENET opened internationally in Canada ahead of the U.S. this past week) led to a level of unintentional meta immersion that even Nolan never planned on.   

I could pen an entire long form article about Nolan's infamous insistence on releasing his film only in cinemas and forgoing a VOD release, and after seeing the film I can understand why.  It features the kind of indescribable spectacle that necessitates big screen consumption (that, and experiencing the film in a cinema means that Nolan's work has complete power over you, unlike, say, watching it at home and being constantly distracted by smart phones and family members, not to mention having power over the film in terms of pausing or stopping it).  TENET requires the utmost focus and attention of safe cinema viewing (watching it in pieces over several nights at home would ruin it).  More importantly, it needs the huge silver screen canvas for one to truly appreciate its artifice and production design.  Even if you feel like you need a physics degree to make heads or tails sense of this film, there's simply no question that, on pure technical levels, TENET is mesmerizing and concocts action sequences of endless innovation and staggering complexity. 

The opening and aforementioned opera house invasion (showing what so many of us can't experience now...a packed auditorium filled with spectators) being gassed by masked assailants is undeniably chilling and sets the tone immediately.  Take, for instance, another stellar set piece that highlights Nolan's absolute meticulous insistence of old school moviemaking versus CGI imagery (he claims that TENET contains less CGI than most modern romcoms, and he may be right): It involves using an actual Boeing 747 plane and crashing it while on the ground in an absolutely exhilarating and tense moment.  There's also a series of positively head spinning fight scenes that appear to joyously defy the laws of gravity in the same way a similar sequence in INCEPTION did years ago, which is further followed by one of the most incredibly sustained car chase sequences of recent memory set within a time inverted world (as perceived by Protagonist) that has him careening his vehicle down a freeway in pursuit of the Russian baddie, and all why everything around him in terms of the normal perceptible laws of nature become flipped over backwards on itself.  With his long-time cinematographer in tow in Oscar winning Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan lets his unbridled visual imagination run hog wild here, not to mention that he uses some gorgeous location shooting in countries as far ranging as Estonia, Italy, Denmark, and London.   

It would be easy to overlook the actors and performances here, but Nolan knows how to get the best out of them all, and what a superb and finely in-tune ensemble this is.  Washington has a low key and simmering charisma that suits his role rather well, not to mention that he can evoke understated bewilderment (especially at this film's litany of hair raising developments) as good as any actor.  He's paired impeccably well by Pattinson, who shows he just how capable he can be at playing rascally rogues that exude ethereal coolness when given the right opportunity do so (ironically, it's almost as if this 007-esque film is seemingly giving him an opportunity here to give a Bond audition reel).  Branagh (who last worked with Nolan on DUNKIRK) might be the most Bond inspired presence here as far as baddies go: he's broad without coming off as a cartoon inspired antagonist, and frightening enough to be considered a genuine and dangerous threat to all (you really sense the actor wholly sinking his teeth into this despotic villain with a real passionate intensity).  TENET's real performance coup de grace is Debicki (so good in the criminally overlook WIDOWS), who has the most difficult role here playing what could have been a one-note damsel in distress, but here she's a strong willed, but highly abused figure that's on her own vendetta inspired mission seeking some serious one-upmanship over her domineeringly hostile husband.  She's the emotional epicenter of the story that provides an audience conduit. 

Therein lies one of the main issues that I had with TENET.  Outside of Debicki's juicy role, many of the characters contained within are not given much of a back story from Nolan, which leads to the stakes feeling superficially imposed on us.  For as good as Washington and Pattinson are in the film, their respective roles as so underdeveloped that, by the time the film ends we feel that we've learned very little about them, outside of reveals provided in expositional heavy dialogue.  And speaking of dialogue, Nolan commits the same creative sins he did with his equally ambitious, but deeply flawed INTERSTELLAR in terms of spending a distracting amount of time having characters explain things...over and over...and over again...to the point where I felt like I was being dryly lectured to.  To be fair, Nolan's premise and ultimate storytelling end game here is unfathomably dense and goes down some subplot detours that are infinitely too complicated for words, but far too much of the time he has his characters scrupulously lay out what's happening from one moment to the next, which flies in the face of one of the most basic movie rules for success: show, don't tell.  Hell, at one point Nolan literally resorts to color coding key characters (not making this up) to allow for us to make some sense of who's moving forward in time and who's moving backwards in time within the same scene and to inform us as to just what in the hell is happening in this monumentally bonkers finale.  If there was ever a film that seems like it should have come with a meticulous detailed road map for prospective viewers...it's this one. 

TENET is the type of epically sprawling New Age blockbuster made with painstaking old school methodology that simply doesn't dominate cinemas these days.  Like Nolan's last few films, this one is a rousing triumph of bravura imagery and conceptual design, but one that dramatically isn't as powerful as it thinks it is.  So much of TENET works so staggeringly well because of the visuals and action alone (which, again, totally warrants cinematic viewing...if you can do so where you are), and you gain an instant appreciation that Nolan is simply working on a whole other upper echelon here on a level of confident showmanship.   To his esteemed acclaim and like an Alfred Hitchcock before him, Nolan is one of the very few genre filmmakers working today whose name alone over that of his cast is the main selling feature and attraction.  The pre-release build-up for TENET reached almost PHANTOM MENACE levels of anticipation (especially for Nolan die-hards), made all the more feverous because of how the pandemic has all but destroyed cinema going for the masses and delayed Nolan's film countless times (it must be daunting for a director to have his work plagued with the added expectation that it could "save the industry as a whole" if successful).  Ultimately, TENET is a staggeringly original vision, and one of the biggest head scratcher efforts in terms of mystifying storytelling intricacy (you'll either applaud Nolan's efforts here to mind screw you, or want to throw your hands up in disgust).  What it mournfully lacks, though, is a decent amount of heart and soul, because the resulting effort has a cold and clinical detachment here that pushes away viewers instead of inviting them in to be thoroughly wowed.  

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