Film Review: Tenet


(Spoiler-free review.)

Loud. Beautiful. Slick. Time. Cerebral. Michael Caine.

Okay, I gave it away with that last one (if you didn’t read the title): I’m talking about Christopher Nolan, of course. At this point, with his 11th film in 22 years, Tenet, those are the sort of Christopher Nolan trademarks I think of after seeing all of his films, including this latest one. You can also add an attention-grabbing opening scene, big set pieces, practical effects, and multiple “climaxes.”

Tenet is actually Nolan’s worst performing film among critics, albeit, given other directors’ films, a 76 percent as your “worst performing” is still good. His 2002 film with Robin Williams, Insomnia, comes in at 77 percent. Otherwise, most of his films tend to be in the 80 percent to 94 percent territory. The Rottentomatoes critical consensus reads, “A visually dazzling puzzle for film lovers to unlock, Tenet serves up all the cerebral spectacle audiences expect from a Christopher Nolan production.”

The manipulation of time and linear structure has been a big part of Nolan’s oeuvre, with virtually all of his films playing with time and linear structure to some degree, beginning most notably with 2000’s Memento, but also 2006’s The Prestige, 2010’s Inception, 2014’s Interstellar, and if memory serves, even 2017’s Dunkirk. Nolan has apparently worked on this movie in one way or another for more than 20 years, which again, makes sense, given he’s been playing with those ideas across multiple films.

With Tenet, time comes to the forefront again, following the story of a secret agent, The Protagonist (played by John David Washington, and yes, he’s Denzel Washington’s son), who is trying to prevent WWIII, but there’s quantum physics and time shifts at play. Essentially, the way I would explain it as I understood what was happening: Human beings in the future figured out how to manipulate objects so as to send them back to the past (which for The Protagonist is the “present”), but because they’re coming backward, they’re more dangerous. For example, getting shot is going to suck regardless, but getting shot with a bullet going backward in time and space is going to mess up your internal organs even more. Now, extrapolate.

From left are Washington and Pattinson.

Andrei Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh) has figured out a way to move between the present and the future and manipulate those objects, and he serves as the antagonist. In the middle of those two is Kat Barton (played by Elizabeth Debicki), who is Sator’s estranged wife, held hostage by him for all intents and purposes. And helping the Protagonist along is Neil (played by Robert Pattinson), who is his handler, and to a lesser extent, Sir Michael Crosby (Michael Caine), a British Intelligence officer.

Washington is certainly his Denzel’s son, no question about it. They both have that swaggering confidence and almost inconceivable ability to seem so chill as they’re fighting bad guys. He’s believable in the role and the hand-to-hand action sequences are some of my favorite aspects of the film, particularly given the backdrop of time and space manipulation.

A salient problem people have with Nolan’s films, and it reminds me of Damon Lindelof on the small screen (Lost, for example), is that they get frustrated trying to figure out the puzzle and what’s going on. But I don’t need the film to make sense 20 minutes or even 80 minutes in to its 150 minute runtime. Because eventually, the pieces do start coming together, even if I still couldn’t fully articulate how it all works. I’m okay with that though! Nolan’s (and for that matter, Lindelof’s) films work on that level.

On a technical level, another issue people have is the difficulty in hearing Nolan’s films, whether it’s the dialogue overlayed with loud music or ambient noises or the performance of the dialogue with respect to British and/or Irish accents. I’ve never been bothered by this, either. Nolan even addressed this and I agree with him: His films are constructed in such a way that I don’t need to literally hear every syllable to understand what’s going on. It is a visual medium, after all.

“Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound. I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film.”


People are going to scoff at that deliberate choice and explanation by Nolan, but that’s yet another hallmark of what makes Nolan great: Nobody blends experimental with blockbuster — auteur filmmaking with blockbuster filmmaking — like Nolan does.

I find it impressive. Maybe some, critics and fans alike (although the latter is hard to measure since the film came out during a pandemic) are tiring of his shtick, but I can’t get enough of Nolan’s filmmaking. All those trademarks I pointed out, I love. Whatever else you want to say about Nolan, at least he’s bringing something original to the forefront and doing it in a way that’s interesting and makes you talk about it long after you’ve left the theater. Both of those things are in short supply in major motion pictures.

Nolan achieved that again here, with Tenet. His films are an experience and an enjoyable experience for 150 minutes, between the larger-than-life set pieces, the soundtrack, the inventive action sequences with practical effects, the more intimate fight scenes, and the narrative structure that warps your brain; it’s like a blend of taking a ride at Universal theme park and watching a Sundance film.

As far as I am concerned, Nolan is still batting 11 for 11. If you haven’t seen Tenet, I would encourage you to see it, if you think it’s safe to see it at the movie theater, or to certainty see it once it’s available on demand. Also, as with any Nolan film, the less you know going in, the better. Even the trailers, which these days, notoriously give away too much, didn’t give away much of anything with this film. I hope my review was sparse on such details as well.

If you have seen the film, what are your thoughts?

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