Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himish Patel
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan is the biggest director working today. While others have received more critical acclaim, no other director’s next film is considered an event film like Nolan’s are. Having grossed over US$4.7 billion over his career, Warner Brothers have given him more creative freedom than anyone working today. Tenet was one of the most anticipated films of the year in what was looking to be a big blockbuster period before Covid hit. It was then trumpeted as the film that would save theaters, that would have people coming back again and again. It still might, but maybe for the reason they intended.
Tenet follows a CIA operative, played by John David Washington, who is never named but is referred to as The Protagonist. After an operation goes sideways, The Protagonist is recruited into a secret organisation with the word ‘tenet’ and a cross-fingered gesture the only clues to who he is working for. The Protagonists is soon on a mission to stop a world-ending event happening due to technology from the future.
The future technology in question are inverted items, things (mostly weapons) that have had their entropy reversed, causing them to move backwards through time. An inverted object can be picked up by doing a reverse-dropping motion. A bullet can be pulled back into a gun. The Protagonist is tasked with finding out more about theses weapons and is pointed in the direction of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), an arms dealer who seems to be in communication with the future people responsible for the technology. His in, Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who is struggling with being trapped in her relationship with Sator.
Tenet is at its heart a spy film. Nolan seems to be making his version of a Bond film, but with a sci-fi twist. There are action set pieces but a lot of the film is planning schemes or characters trying to manipulate information out of others. The film is a freight train, moving at an incredible pace that you’ll be kind of surprised when 150 minutes have passed and the movie is coming to its end. It’s a fun ride with several reveals and enough turns to make for an enjoyable time.
The film looks great with some really interesting set pieces that utilise the inverted weapons and concepts well. The report that there are fewer VFX shots in Tenet than most films is surprising and has me keen to see some Behind the Scenes featurettes to learn how they did it.
As a plot-driven film, there is not much room for character growth or archs. The Protagonist is a blank slate for the most part. We learn barely anything about his past or much about him at all. There is not very much character development in any of the main cast, with Kat getting the largest character arch in the film by far. That doesn’t mean that the acting is bad, it is really good across the board. Robert Pattinson’s Neil, The Protagonist’s partner or handler, is a delight on screen and Kenneth Branagh gives his all, even if his character is very one-note with hard to believe motivations.
Nolan has created an interesting world with so much sci-fi jargon and concepts that require a hell of a lot of explanation. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do a very good job of explaining it. The film moves along at such a rapid pace, you had better be wide awake when watching this film and paying attention or you end up stuck playing catch up. While the plot is basic enough to follow along without understanding the minutia, it is easy to be caught up in your own head trying to work out what is happening. But once you see some of the concepts in action, you soon forget about the why and how and focus on what is unfolding in front of you.
There are many conversations early in the film that feel overly edited to be as short as possible, yet are important in creating the stakes and explaining a lot of the core concepts. The first meeting between Kat and The Protagonist is one example of this, which had me thinking of the scene from Bohemian Rhapsody which got so much ridicule. The film could have been helped with slowing down a little bit, even if the film already has a long runtime.