OK. What just happened?
“Don’t try to understand it” is the advice given to John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist early on in the film. As a viewer, this could be interpreted as Nolan issuing us either a warning or a challenge… I’m still not sure which, but I know fans will certainly be decrypting Tenet for many years to come.
Hats (and masks) off to whoever did understand the film on their first viewing. I’d say this is perhaps one of the most ambitious mind-bending projects I’ve ever seen attempted in cinema, which makes the story immensely difficult to summarise… so I’m not going to. Consider this a spoiler-free review!
Though I think in order to properly review Tenet, you need to literally re-view it; having only experienced the film once (so far), I imagine I’ve probably only understood half of the story. As with Nolan’s previous reality-distorting films, while the initial viewing is the hook that grabs and pulls you head-first into his complex conceptual worlds, it’s only with subsequent return visits that you can discover the finer details missed the first time around and complete the puzzle, so to speak. A bit like its palindromic title, Tenet needs to be read again retrospectively in order to fully understand how “time inversion” works, and therefore how it governs and dictates the direction of the story.
Let me try to describe Tenet from a non-narrative perspective.
First things first: this film is fast. And you need to be able to keep up. Nolan pulps time from the first frame to the last – not always necessarily in terms of linearity, but in the way the lightning-quick editing discards all empty space, and his razor-sharp dialogue ricochets between the characters leaving barely a moment to pause. As a result, some scenes are no more than a few seconds in duration and much of the expositional dialogue is literally ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’. The first half of the plot, then, is inevitably quite confusing. As it relentlessly propels forwards, we’re not really sure who is who or what is going on, and it’s clear from the onset that there is a wider story that we are not privy to. Have patience though, because the second half of the film provides another chance to make sense of what has come before – remember: time can run in both directions, and the future may explain the past!
Comparing Tenet to “like Bond on acid” couldn’t be any more accurate. The influence of spy-espionage films here is beyond palpable, complete with stereotypical Russian oligarch villain, Andrei Sator (played menacingly by Kenneth Branagh), his estranged wife and Bond Girl-esque Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, whose performance will no doubt garner international acclaim), and an unforgettable catalogue of stunts and action set pieces achieved with minimal CGI. Perhaps most notable is the crashing of a real Boeing 747 into an aircraft hangar – a welcome reminder of the inimitable impact that in-camera practical effects can really have. And let’s face it, nobody does it better than Nolan (cue Carly Simon).
But this only scratches the surface of Nolan’s boundless creativity and imagination. When you consider that forward and reverse-motion elements not only co-exist, but collide and counteract each other throughout the entire film (I suppose a bit like a couple fighting over the Sky+ remote), you’ll be shaking your head in disbelief at what he has been able to visually achieve – as much as you may not understand what is going on, you can’t deny it looks bloody incredible.
And then there’s the sound design… I’ve always advocated that Nolan films MUST be experienced in the cinema, and this is certainly no exception. Combined with Ludwig Göransson’s ferociously warped score, the visceral bassy onslaught of Tenet not only makes your skin vibrate, but it sucks the breath from your lungs like the cinema itself is a vacuum. There’s few other cinema experiences I can compare it to.
So is the film perfect? Sadly no.
First of all, the audibility of the dialogue suffers immensely amidst the otherwise impressive soundscapes. Add into the mix characters with accents, wearing masks, or talking over radios (sometimes doing all three at once), I imagine up to 20-25% of the dialogue is simply lost, and a significant amount of important narrative exposition with it! I recently argued on the CineChat Podcast with regards to Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, that not always being able to understand dialogue can actually add to the atmosphere of a film, but in the case of Tenet I can unfortunately see this only as a distraction from the overall immersion.
The film’s other downfall is that it restricts any sort of emotional connection to its characters. For example, although John David Washington carries the film very well from an action perspective, I can’t say I cared much for his role. Robert Pattinson is perhaps the most charismatic and recognisably human of them all, but even then we don’t really learn anything about him. It’s not necessarily a problem if you consider that Nolan maybe just wanted to direct the focus solely on the temporal concept at hand, but a bit more character development certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss.
I’m booked to see Tenet again 24 hours from now, and so I’ve partially based my score on the expectation that an obligatory second viewing will nicely fill all of the narrative gaps. But even without a return visit, and regardless of its flaws, Nolan has genuinely brought something new and incredibly unique to the table. I can confidently say I have never seen anything like it attempted before. I’m positive it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but surely no one can deny that he deserves an ‘A’ for effort. So here goes nothing…