With theaters shuttered since March, studios have opted to either postpone their summer blockbuster releases to late 2020 or 2021, or release their tentpole films on demand. Warner Bros., however, decided to continue with its planned summer release of “Tenet,” albeit with a two-month delay. It’s the first big-budget film to be released in the gradual reopening of movie theaters across the world. Director Christopher Nolan, a firm believer in the superiority of the moviegoing experience over streaming, has been vocal about supporting theaters throughout this pandemic. It is no surprise, then, that the film was not released on any streaming service. However, it might just be worth the gamble — with almost no competition, Nolan debuts perhaps his most mind-bending, audacious venture yet, one that is sure to drive people back into theaters.
On a certain level, “Tenet” is full of typical “Nolanisms,” for better or worse. It remains light on character development, uses female characters primarily as a crutch for the male protagonist (cheekily named “The Protagonist” (John David Washington) in this film) and, once again, showcases his obsession with the manipulation of time. And yes, Michael Caine is in this one too. If you’re looking for something that departs from Nolan’s traditional style of work, then perhaps give this movie a pass. But if you’ve ever wondered what a James Bond film directed by Christopher Nolan would look like, then “Tenet” is definitely worth a watch. Despite similarities to his past work, Nolan has once again shown why he is considered one of the best modern directors.
“Tenet” largely operates on the philosophy of “don’t try to understand it, just feel it,” as instructed to The Protagonist toward the beginning of the film. A very tongue-in-cheek comment to the audience, as it turns out, since the intricate narrative can be a little difficult to follow. To my frustration, I initially found myself unable to decipher the ambiguity and complexity of the plot. The unique quality “Tenet” has, however, is that everything, and I mean everything, has a purpose and place, and it all fits together beautifully at the end as if it were one giant LEGO set that creates something extraordinary from hundreds of little pieces.
“Tenet” mostly excels in its technical aspects — aside from some minor issues with sound editing that made the dialogue difficult to hear in the first few minutes, the film features bombastic sound editing and background score orchestrated by Ludwig Göransson, in the vein of frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer. The cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema is beautifully done, capturing gorgeous long establishing shots and rapid, elaborate set pieces. “Tenet” takes fight scenes to new levels, as they center around the innovative concept of “inversion” — having two simultaneous actions happening on screen: one forward in time and one backward happening together on screen.
The cast adds depth and nuance through their performances, despite it being an event-driven, rather than character-driven, film. Neil (Robert Pattinson) and The Protagonist have a captivating rapport, which fuels the narrative forward, while Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and Sator (Kenneth Branagh) bring to life a toxic relationship between a Russian arms dealer and his British wife. Debicki, in particular, shines in her role, as she portrays the struggle of a woman in an abusive relationship, yet uses the situation to empower herself.
The pacing of the film is a bit of an issue; the first act seems a little rushed, perhaps to avoid padding on to an already long 2.5-hour runtime. Tonally, the film naturally flows from feeling like a traditional spy film to a heist film, eventually culminating in a 30-minute long action sequence that ends on a triumphant note. Nolan does an extraordinary job in establishing the rules of the world and providing the audience with a large amount of information without making the film feel tedious. Ultimately, the buildup of the first 45 minutes leads to an extremely satisfying payoff.
“Tenet” is, without a doubt, Nolan’s boldest film. To add to its appeal, the film is sure to rival “Inception” (2010) in providing ample material for fans to theorize and debate over. It is difficult to discuss too much of the film without spoilers; however, it is a veritable cornucopia of ground-breaking action sequences (something that has been a criticism of Nolan, despite his acclaimed stint with “The Dark Knight” trilogy), with a dash of humor and emotion sprinkled in just the right amounts. The film would best be compared to a rollercoaster ride that, though starting off slow, suddenly shifts gears and continually accelerates before coming to a sudden stop, leaving the audience wondering how the time simply flew by.
Disclaimer: It is important to stress that we are still amidst a pandemic. The writer does not endorse behavior that breaks the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Do not visit movie theaters without appropriate safety protocols and taking precautions, especially if you are located in a hotspot.