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 QuintonWritten and directed by Christopher Nolan
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.
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.
you've officially gone crossed eyed and are saying to yourself "WTF?"
then...well...you might not be alone.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.