Tenet (2020) Review
WE LIVE IN A TWILIGHT WORLD.
AN INVERSION CINEMATIC EXPEREINCE.
Director Christopher Nolan is an acclaimed film director that many, including myself, have found to be exceptional in the execution of the films that he directs. While he’s been around for quite some time, developing several short films (both released unreleased), several first noticed Nolan’s work as a director in his sophomore film Memento. Released in 2000, Nolan’s Memento was a complex film of dueling narratives story threads, which meet at the end of the film, producing one whole and cohesive narrative storyline. Even if you didn’t have Memento on your “movie radar”, many (and I do mean many) recognized Nolan’s directorial work after successful taking the DC superhero “cape crusader” (i.e. Batman) and created the celebrated Dark Knight trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises). From there, Nolan went on becoming a much-respected director from critics and the public of moviegoers, with his other films like The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar. Nolan’s approach to crafting a feature film is what makes him truly stand out, rooting his pictures with sociological, ethical, and philosophical concepts / ideas, the explanation and constructs of time, and the nature of personal identity and memory. Additionally, Nolan, who usually also writes the screenplay for most of his movies, also weaves very complex narratives, with some nonlinear storytelling and a tendency to emphasis characters (and their cinematic journey) rather than making the feature’s primary focus on its visual effects and other nuances. Such was the case with his latest 2017 film Dunkirk, which took branched out into the realm of WWII, but imbuing the feature with Nolan’s cinematic flourishes. Now, director Christopher Nolan (and Warner Bros. Pictures) gear up for the release of his latest feature film…. Tenet. Does this movie speak true to Nolan’s signature touches and cinematic nuances or does this inversion journey get lost within the acclaimed director’s complexed themes of storytelling?
In a twilight world of international espionage and shadowy dealings, an unnamed CIA operative, known as the Protagonist (John David Washington), takes part of a mission to retrieve a strange artifact, but ultimately fails and is captured / tortured by his captors, before swallowing a cyanide pill. However, he later wakes to find out that the mission was a test and swiftly and covertly recruited by a mysterious organization called Tenet; participating in a global assignment that unfolds beyond time itself. The mission: prevent Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a renegade Russian oligarch with precognition abilities from starting World War III. Using his old tricks in this new terrain landscape of time traveling nuances and espionage, the Protagonist, along with the help his handler, Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), travels the globe in tracking down Sator’s whereabouts and what is ultimate plan is. However, the truth is more than what it seems as the once CIA operative soon learns of the hidden and strange battlefield that he’s about to get entangled in, with reversing the flow of time in “time inversion” as a way to countering the threat that is to come from Sator’s goal…if he succeeds.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Sorry if this sounds a bit summary to what I said in my review for Dunkirk (the opening paragraph and this one), but it definitely speaks true to my point. So….as stated above…. Christopher Nolan has become a very successful and widely-known film director over the past several years in Hollywood moviemaking. Whenever he announces his newest film to direct, the internet newsfeeds light up as many moviegoers and critics eagerly start counting down the days to its release. I do remember first seeing Memento and, at first glance, found it to be confusing, but I learned to appreciate its complexity and unconventional narrative over time (I definitely had to watch that movie several times to fully get it). And of course, I, like many, fell in love with Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, especially with The Dark Knight, and how Nolan’s take on the infamous DC comic book character changed the ultimate direction of superhero movies (for the better). Then came Nolan’s mind-bending feature of Inception and blew me away (probably one of my favorite Christopher Nolan movies) with its actors / characters of the movie (my first introduction to actor Tom Hardy) and within its intricate storytelling of individuals entering a person’s subconscious dreamscape.
Interstellar, however, was a bit of tossup. Sure, it had all the flairs and nuances of Nolan’s works as well as being well-acted and delivering a very intriguing story, but it was way too drawn out and a bit confusing in trying to decipher all the scientific techno-babble for all non-master degree in quantum physics individuals. And finally, Dunkirk, Nolan’s last film, was truly a cinematic experience worth of all the praise and acclaimed it has received (in my opinion). The complexity of layering three different storylines (each one having their own distinct feeling and time flow) was a bit unorthodox, but I expected something that Nolan would want to achieve through a theatrical film. Its effective prove to be worthwhile, with Dunkirk succeeding in a great cinematic experience that was just as engaging as a feature film as it was for a WWII movie.
This brings me back to talking about Tenet, Nolan’s eleventh directorial film and the latest project on the illustrious director to tackle. Following the success of Dunkirk, many (including myself) began to speculate what project Nolan was take on next. A year or so later and rumors began to emerge on the world wide web that Nolan’s next film project was gonna revolve around time; a concept that the director wasn’t afraid to encroach on before (see Memento, Inception, and Dunkirk for those prime examples). Then….every now and again, I kept on hearing about casting selections for Nolan’s next movie as well as the film’s first official teaser trailer, which really didn’t show that much; basically teasing audiences that the director’s latest film was arriving in 2020 with a few shots presented (probably why I didn’t post it on my blog). However, as time went on, the internet soon began to drop tidbits Nolan’s upcoming film (titled Tenet), while a new trailer or two dropped online and got the attention of many viewers, including myself. To be sure, the movie’s trailers certainly looked like a Christopher Nolan feature and seemed quite an original presentation (something that he’s known for doing). Plus, the concept of time (something he’s also known for presenting in his films) seemed like it was gonna be a key component in the film’s narrative in a very interesting way. So, like many, I was definitely excited (almost hyped) to see Tenet when it was to be released on July 17th, 2020. However, due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, as shuffled around several times until it was to land firmly on the date of September 4th. Luckily, I was able to see Tenet on an early screening of the film on August 31st and I’m now ready to share my thoughts on the film. And what did I think of Nolan’s movie? Well, I really liked it. Despite being a bit confusing at times and lack of character development, Tenet offers an immersive experience from Nolan’s cinematic storytelling of which he could only tell. It may not beat out some of his other works (i.e. Inception, The Dark Knight, or Dunkirk), but its still a solid Nolan film nonetheless.
Like many of his other works in directing feature films, Christopher Nolan has a very distinct and almost signature style of directorial filmmaking and it certainly shows that off in very grandiose and cinematic way in Tenet. In truth, it almost becomes a standard “bread and butter” of which many of us have come to expect from one of his films and Nolan seems to know that; lathering the feature with his style and nuances that makes the movie grand and expansive; filling up each scene with such poignant veracity and cinematic prose that it becomes such a viewing cinematic experience. In this regard, Tenet definitely leaves up to its hype, with Nolan bringing together a project that’s quite ambitious and beautiful assembled for a large-scale cinematic event; something to behold on the big-screen (wherever you watch it).
Effectively, Nolan makes Tenet feel a bit more original than most films of late being released by big studios in Hollywood. While there’s been a plethora of recent remakes / reboots, sequels / prequels, and literary film adaptations, Tenet somewhat feels like a “breath of fresh air”; welcoming the idea of an original story, which again is Nolan himself penned the feature’s script, that feels innovated and creatively engaged from start to finish. That’s not to say that Nolan takes spiritual inspiration when shaping the film’s story. While his concept of time is the main attraction / component of the film, Nolan takes inspiration from the espionage spy genre to help bolster his cinematic narrative…. just like how he similarly did in Inception of the ideas of heist thriller. Thus, Tenet is very much a spy adventure, which is filled with international globetrotting from place to place and brimming with shadowy agents, a Russian antagonist, weapons dealing / traders, and world-at-stakes missions, but placed in the hands of Nolan’s style that offers up a somewhat different perspective. There’s plenty of twist and turns that unfold in the movie (although one twist I immediately guess would happen and it did) and Nolan makes the film quite fresh and engaging. So yes, Nolan gives the feature a bit more grounded sci-fi nuances in Tenet and makes the film’s world (time traveling inversion escapades and all) feel a bit more believable than something straight out of something like a Doctor Who episode.
What’s definitely the main attraction of the film is in the concept of time and how Nolan present it in Tenet. As I mentioned before, the concept of time has always seemed to play a part in some of Nolan’s previous works (i.e. Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk) in either how the story approaches time or how Nolan shapes the feature around the flow of time itself. In Tenet, the concept of time both of which how it flows and how it can be manipulated in reverse (i.e. inversion) is bewildering to watch, but also creatively done and quite engrossing to watch. I personally wanted to see how Nolan was gonna use the whole “time inversion” aspect and he pulls off with effective master strokes; utilizing the concept to his full advantage in shaping Tenet’s narrative that feels quite unique and original. Haven’t really seeing anything like this before, with the close thing being Inception (in my opinion). Its mind boggling and confusing at times (more on that below), but the inversion of time and how its utilized in the movie is quite ingenious and something that only Christopher Nolan could dream up of. As a word of caution or lesson to learn in watching Tenet….pay attention as the more focused and learn about time and the inversion of it all in the film’s world, the better you’ll enjoy the movie and Nolan’s vision for the project. It’s clear to see why Nolan took many years to develop the concept / story for Tenet.
Another strong attribute in many of Nolan’s films is in the way the director shoots and cuts his cinematic tale that delivers a beautifully crafted presentation. Tenet follows that suit perfectly and offers up a gorgeous and well-executed film that certainly looks like Christopher Nolan film and worth every penny of its large production budget of $200 million +. What’s definitely interesting about the movie (at least to me) is in the various locations that used in the story; making Tenet have an international globetrotting adventure (again…something akin to a spy movie). So, when shooting in variety of international locales and places such as Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Norway, India, United Kingdom, it quite picturesque whenever presented in the background; offering a beautiful cinematic landscape for the film’s story / characters to populate in. Thus, several of the filmmaking “behind the scenes” team, including Nathan Crowley (production design), Emmanuel Delis and Kathy Lucas (set decorations), and Jeffery Kurland (costume designs) as well as the entire art department team, for developing and create such a vivid world for Tenet’s many settings and background nuances to thrive in on the cinematic platform. Plus, I do have to say that the sound mixing / sound editing members on Tenet definitely deserve credit for their work as every hit, gun shot, and explosion feels quite impactful and resonates within the feature (much like how it did in Dunkirk). So….well done!
As mentioned, the film’s third act is quite explosive with large scale battle taking place and its all very well done and beautifully shot. Even beyond that, there are several key takeaway scenes that are perfectibility well-choregraphed and stunningly, including some one-on-one fights between the Protagonist and a masked inverted soldier and a tense car chase. Thus, the cinematography work by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who previous collaborate with Nolan on Interstellar and Dunkirk, is profoundly amazing to see in almost every close up and wide shot and definitely adds an extra cinematic layer to Tenet’s intricate story and viewing experience. This also entails the work done by the film’s editor Jennifer Lane, who creates such a tightly-woven feature and does a very good job in splicing / changing scenes, especially when the movie reaches its climatic points in the third act. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Ludwig Göransson, is quite bombastic and definitely feels quite “in-line” with both Nolan’s previous releases (in tone and composition) as well for Tenet’s presentation. Some have argued that Göransson’s score is trying to be like Hans Zimmer’s Inception score, but Göransson still manages to make the soundtrack his own and definitely offers up a grandiose / bombardment of blasting drums, heavy percussions, and large-than-life scaled melodies to accompany the feature. Neither way, the score of Tenet is solid…across the board.
Despite a lot of the film’s positives, Tenet, though a visual spectacle of cinematic proportions and a ambitious story, does suffer from drawbacks that doesn’t necessarily derail the feature, but hinders it from reaching the same type of level that of some of his other past films in his catalogue. Perhaps one of the biggest and most prominent criticism that many have with the movie is in its overall plot and how it is all executed. While I did mention that I did praise Nolan for his complexity of the narration a few paragraphs above, I do have to join in this grouping of criticism. Nolan has always been praised for his conceptual design works within his films…. particularly when shaping / crafting his script and the film’s story. However, those complexities sometimes breed a little bit of a befuddling / perplexing notions to the movie’s narrative and so it does in Tenet; offering up an engrossing tale that does little slow and breathe in its concept / navigation. Suffice to say that Tenet is (beyond a shadow of a doubt) quite confusing at times as a viewer must pay attention for majority of the film or left quite bewildered with several sequences that can turn anyone’s head. This was sort of the problem with Inception, but at least that particular film had certain characters to fully help the narrative explained to us (the viewers). Nolan’s Tenet doesn’t really do that and almost assumes that you (as the viewer) knows what’s going on and doesn’t really slow down to divulge a lot of the narrative components to the plot. Thus, I felt that the script handling of the film could’ve been a bit more developed in fully explaining what is going and who’s who. I got majority of what had happened in the movie, but I was a little bit lost during some points and actually had to look up some stuff up after I left the movies. In the end, while many complained that Dunkirk was overly simplistic, Tenet is overly complexed; two extremes measures in Nolan’s directorial visions.
Also, I do have to mention that the pacing is a tad off in the first act. Of course, the explosive opening scene is quite impactful and immediately drops us into foray of action, but after that film slows down and is filled with smaller supporting characters (with one or two scenes) that offer the Protagonist character vague understandings of what needs to do. Again, this goes back to Nolan’s script for the movie and I just wished that he had refined the script to have more of a balance in both story and characters. Speaking of which, Tenet, due to overall convoluted plot of time travel, inversion, Sator’s endgame, lacks the character development within majority of its main players as well as its supporting ones. For most of the feature’s lengthy runtime, many of the characters that pop in and out of the movie’s tale are rather thin and come off as one-dimensional. While this was one of the criticisms had in Dunkirk, those flaws in that 2017 film were slightly more forgiving as the multi-layered narrative threads of the film provided a more cinematic treatment to the feature, which was (again) more simplistic in nature. Tenet, however, has the runtime and a more ambitious concept / story to tell, but Nolan seems to struggle when creating compelling characters for us (the viewers) to fully invest in throughout the movie.
This leads into the film’s cast, which Nolan has selected quite an impressive selection of actors and actresses to be a part of Tenet’s characters. No matter how small or a big a role is in the movie, its quite clear that many are quite excited to be a part of Nolan’s feature (that much is quite clear). However, as mentioned above, most of these characters and left with a sort of impassive tone / mold and are rather effective in the story, but not much emotionally weight behind them…. despite being played by well-talented individuals. This is perhaps one of the more crucial elements to the film to criticize, though I kind of felt that this was gonna be the case, especially how the story takes more precedent over the well-roundness of its characters.
This is most apparent in the film’s main character, an unnamed individual just referred to as the “protagonist”, a magnetic / well-trained CIA operative who is quickly involved in Tenet’s time traveling schemes to thwart Sator’s master plan. Played by actor John David Washington, known for his roles in Ballers, BlacKkKlansman, and All Rise, the character of the Protagonist certainly has all the makings of a lead character role (i.e. stoic, resourceful, and cunning). Unfortunately, the character is kind of befuddling because there’s really nothing about him (his past and what makes him tick) that gets revealed in the story; making him more of a character that in the “here and now” of Tenet’s story and bouncing around to and fro to complete his mission. Of course, Washington’s performance (his likeable persona and charisma) definitely helps elevate those drawbacks in the Protagonist character, but his journey throughout the movie isn’t one of self-discovery or enlightenment development, which makes the character a tad dull. Still, I kind of figured that it was gonna be like this, so this didn’t bother me as much. Although, I would’ve liked to see a bit more humanity character development in the role than what was presented. In the end, Washington was fine in the role, despite the lack of character development, but he certainly handles himself well whenever he’s on-screen. A solid talent in the lead role. The same can partial be said with the character of Neil, the Protagonist’s handler, who is played by actor Robert Pattinson. Known for his roles Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Water for Elephants, and The Twilight saga movies, Pattinson does a commendable job in the movie; offering a charismatic performance in Neil and he seems to be having fun playing the part. But, much like Washington, Pattinson can only do so much, with his character being relatively the same for much of the feature’s runtime (i.e helpful and witty, but kept elusive and mysterious). Granted, I haven’t seeing much of Pattinson’s work since his Twilight days of playing Edward Cullen, but I do have to say that Pattinson’s acting ability has definitely improved since those years. Still, both Washington and Pattinson seem to have the biggest fun in the movie as Tenet gives the pair the most screen-time and their rapport chemistry with each other is quite solid and clearly a main component in their characters’ snappy dialogue banter.
Perhaps the one character that has the most emotional character beats in Tenet would have to be in Kat, an art auctioneer / Andrel Sator’s estranged wife and who is played by actress Elizabeth Debicki. Known for her roles in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and The Great Gatsby, Debicki certainly makes the most of her character; acting as the “beat emotional heart” of Tenet and is given the most character development to play around with amongst the rest of cast. Yet, still she kind of gets a little backseated in a few key moments of the narrative; taking away from Debicki’s performance as Kat. As for the main antagonist of the feature, the character of Andrel Sator, a Russian oligarch who communes with the future and seeks to endgame to unravel existence, is certainly one that comes off as a bit conventional, but, much like what Washington does with his “Protagonist character”, actor / director Kenneth Branagh relishes the chance to play the character to the fullest. Known for his roles in Hamlet, Henry V, and Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh seems to chew threw his dialogue in every scene (and with great ease) in playing Sator with enough effectiveness and threatening menace villain. Yes, its bit of a cliched Russian main bad guy (complete with a heavy Russian accent) of a Post-Cold War era individual, but Branagh is such skilled actor that he makes the character fun and I personally loved him as Sator. Definitely washes away that somewhat bad taste after watching his failed directing project for Disney…Artemis Fowl .
The rest of the cast, including actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Godzilla) as Ives, actor Yuri Kolokolnikov (Game of Thrones and Hunter Killer) Quinton, actor Martin Donovan (Ant-Man and The Art of Racing in the Rain) as Victor, actor Michael Caine (The Prestige and The Dark Knight) as Michael Crosby, actress Clemence Posey (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Resistance) as Barbara, actress Fiona Dourif (The Blacklist and Safe) as Wheeler, actor Himesh Patel (EastEnders and Yesterday) as Mahir, and actress Dimple Kapadia (Bobby and Fearless) as Priya, are delegated in smaller supporting roles in the movie. While these acting talents are solid across the board in their respective roles, their limited screen time hampers any type of character development (again, one of the main problems with the film) as they just seem like “cogs in the machine” in Tenet’s grander scheme of things; acting as narrative piece for “the protagonist” to bounce around or to speak to in progressing the story forward. Still, for better or worse, I liked all these actors / actresses involved on this project.
You have to start looking at the world in a new way, as one man is thrust into espionage mission to save the world and experiences a mission that bends time itself in the movie Tenet. Director Christopher Nolan’s latest film takes his concept of “time” and puts his own spin on the international spy genre for a masterful and complex tale of espionage, cinematic nuances, and time inversion. While the feature struggles in explain its overall complexities (confusing at times than fully explaining things fully) as well as in character development, the film succeeds and does outweigh those criticisms thanks to Nolan’s signature style and direction, beautiful cinematography, bombastic musical score, a well-laden overall presentation, ambitious concept / themes of time, and a solid cast. Personally, I really liked this movie. Sure, the complexity of the narrative was a bit haphazard and could’ve streamlined a little more as well as some of the character developments for most of the feature’s players, but I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was completely engrossed from start to finish. Plus, given what has happened to Hollywood, movie theaters, and movies in general due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tenet certainly has the makings of being one of the better / well-made releases of 2020 (so far); an explosive mind-bending experience that’s worth the hype (at least in my opinion). It just might not be the film that some people might expect. Thus, my recommendation for this film is a definite “highly recommended” as fans of Nolan’s work will surely be delight in viewing this movie (or seeing it multiple times) as well as casual moviegoers. Although, casual ones might be a little put off by the convoluted perplexity of the feature. Still, its hard not to marvel over Nolan’s presentation of an immersive experience that is Tenet and is certainly a Nolan film through and through…. for better or worse. Just like what one character says to the Protagonist character in trying to explain inversion….” Don’t try to understand it…. feel it”. And that’s the best way to view Tenet altogether.
4.4 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)
Released On: August 31st, 2020
Reviewed On: September 2nd, 2020
Tenet is 150 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language