Tenet is a movie that I had been anxiously awaiting for since the first teaser dropped. I’m something of a Christopher Nolan fan. While some his ambitious, high concept films are among my favorites (Inception, Interstellar) and Dark Knight is a classic genre-blending piece of cinema, I haven’t seen all of his movies. Thus far, I’ve missed out on The Prestige and Dunkirk. Maybe I’m not a “true” fan. I don’t lose sleep over it. I know that when it comes mind-bending films, few do it better than Nolan today.
So when I caught a glimpse of Tenet and followed-up on rumors over the next several months (“It’s James Bond with time travel!”), I was beyond intrigued. I was almost more excited to see the Tenet IMAX prologue that was paired with Rise of Skywalker, and it did a little to whet my appetite. But due to 2020 being the dumpster fire that it was, we know the movie was delayed in theaters, and even then who would really take a chance with COVID-19 lurking about to go to a theater? So I waited until it was finally released for home purchase and rapturously absorbed the film.
Tenet is a damn clever film, but falls short of being great.
(Warning: light early spoilers ahead)
Tenet is one of the smarter movies you’ll catch in recent memory, but the film takes its time to make real use of its core concept. John David Washington plays “the Protagonist”, a CIA operative who attempts to commit suicide by cyanide capsule when a mission goes sideways. This quickly proves to be a test that he passed, and is soon inducted into the eponymous organization in effort to prevent a coming disaster. One of the key pieces to unraveling the disaster are items from the future that have been discovered to be “inverted” – their entropy runs in reverse, allowing instinctual manipulation of said items in unusual ways, such as firing a gun to “capture” the bullet.
Inversion is a crazy cool concept, but suffers from handwaving almost immediately after it is introduced (“Don’t try to think about it too hard” a character says). This, unfortunately, becomes a theme throughout the rest of the film. The concept of inversion is used to produce some of the most fantastic and unique sequences in cinematic history, but there are moments where it can difficult to process and understand some of the rules surrounding it, making some scenes difficult to absorb on initial viewing. Tenet is a puzzle in this regard, and the film demands multiple viewings to process and move the pieces around to appreciate the full scope of what it has to offer. This is Nolan’s most ambitious movie, to be sure, and the breakneck pace at which events unfold leaves you running along breathless, trying to keep up.
I also enjoyed the film’s interesting take on time travel. It felt very grounded in a realism true to Nolan’s style, and is never a magic solution or deus ex machina in the story.
Washington’s Protagonist travels through a wide variety of locales, making contacts and doing his best to fit in as he tries to uncover the truth. This feels very true to the spy genre (re: James Bond) without being derivative. However, the movie takes its time not only getting to the “good stuff” around Inversion (and when you get there, the movie really opens up into some “Oooooooh!” moments), but also forming an emotional core. Thankfully, Elizabeth Debicki’s character of Kat provides the catalyst for some real emotional investment in the film, even if her role is a little too “damsel in distress” for a chunk of it. But thankfully Nolan’s script makes better use of Debicki the deeper into the film we get, and her arc is one of the more satisfying ones.
Washington is solid, smart and believable as the hero, but Nolan’s script doesn’t give the Protagonist a lot of depth. We learn little about them, but to Washington’s credit he takes the material’s deficiencies and rises above them. Better served is Robert Pattison, whose character Neil proves to be intriguing and provides an unexpected emotional foil for the Protagonist. The partnership between the two develops in key and subtle ways, and Washington and Pattinson nail the dynamic. This leads to one of Washington’s best character scenes late in the film, and leaves me hopeful for Pattinson’s future endeavor in the upcoming Batman movie.
Unfortunately Kenneth Branagh, in the role of Kat’s husband and the antagonist of the film, does not quite move beyond two-dimensional bad guy here. Branagh is a fantastic actor and certainly, “bad” Branagh is better than a lot of others’ good acting. But his role here as Sator is a bit one-note. He’s controlling, abusive and a downright bastard, and Branagh does a good job with what he’s been given. But ultimately, the character’s motivations – especially at the climax – just aren’t engaging. This isn’t an instance where you struggle with the villain’s motivations because maybe they’re right. In a movie this intellectually ambitious, it’s a misstep.
Tenet brings a ton of ambition, smarts and talent to the table. And as a whole, the movie succeeds. But it is brought down by the lack of an emotional hook. Unlike Cobb’s guilt over his wife’s death and separation from his kids in Inception, or Cooper trying to get back to his family in Interstellar, the Protagonist doesn’t have such a grounded reason to keep going. As the film develops, his interest in Kat and her son sort of forms a quasi-replacement but feels distilled at best compared to these examples.
The movie’s own logic and smarts also sabotage a bit of the urgency in the last act of the film, considering the temporal events and their supposed consequences. It makes the countdown nature of final mission feel artificial, although still enjoyable.
Tenet may become Nolan’s most divisive film. Did his ambition overreach his execution? Based strictly on its merits as a film and not box office numbers, will Tenet be considered a cinematic achievement or a curiosity of the Age of Movie Theaters, a final gasp of a dying institution that COVID and streaming finally did in?
Only time will tell…