Movie Review: ‘Tenet’

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel

Plot: A CIA agent is recruited in Tenet, a clandestine organisation dedicated to preventing a devastating future war. Evidence of this war has been discovered as it has been chronologically inverted – making it travel through time in reverse.

Review: If that plot summary is difficult to get your head around, just wait until you see the movie.

Tenet feels like the culmination of Nolan’s film career to date. We get the multi-layered heists from Inception along with the parallel, opposing timelines of Memento, the time travel malarkey of Interstellar and the colour palette of The Dark Knight trilogy. I’ve seen it said that Nolan spent something like 10 years writing out the concept and I believe it. Just thinking about the story gives me a headache.

We start with our protaganist (as best as I can remember, that’s all he’s known as), an agent extracting a target during a terrorist attack. In a moment that left me thoroughly confused because I very intentionally knew nothing going in, he glimpses a bullet seemingly dislodging from the wall and flying back to the gun. When Protaganist (Washington) proves that he’ll take suicide over capture, he gets moved to the organisation ‘Tenet’, where he learns of a destructive third world war coming at some point in the future. The basis of this global destroying conflict is Inversion Technology. Any object or person who is Inverted travels through time in reverse – hence the bullet returning to the gun.

To kick off the investigation into the supplier of the Inverted bullets, our protaganist makes contact with another agent named Neil (Pattinson). Together they pull off a series of heists and operations, leading them to a Russian oligarch and arms dealer (Branagh), who seems to be communicating with the future. As the agents get closer to the target, they’re forced to rethink their tactics to incorporate opponents who have turned themselves Inverted.

If you remember the explanations of their business by the Extractors in Inception, the exposition in Tenet is like that but more. Nolan trusts the audience to make sense of things, but generously helps out with some colour coding to help us track who is Inverted and who isn’t. One a purely visual level, we get characters and objects moving and reacting in rewind compared the world around them, and the movie doesn’t shy away from adding extra complexity to the many spectacular action sequences. Planning the shoot and the editing must’ve been a production all on its own.

Nolan continues to have a knack for putting together an ensemble of great performers along with an obligatory Michael Caine cameo. He only gets the one scene, but it’ll be weird if it wasn’t there. Washington had already proven himself more than a sport star with an ambitious agent in BlacKkKlansman. He manages the thick dialogue of Nolan with ease, and has an easy charm. Kenneth Branagh was possibly the most surprising turn, because he don’t often see him play a completely despicable, abusive, controlling, petty, wretched villain. Not even his natural affability shines through this foulness. Raising star Elizabeth Debicki plays his victimised wife, who has one of the films more tragic character arcs, and she plays it in a deft and subtle way. She’s recently been tapped to play Princess Diana in The Crown, and it’s easy to see why.

Oh, and there’s Robert Pattinson. Now doubt a good slice of the audience will respond to this news with HUH HUH TWILIGHT LOL IS BATMAN GOING TO SPARKLE? That’s disappointing, because it means you’ve ignored or are unaware of the critically acclaimed performances he’s been putting out in indie cinema for years. He’s most recently appeared in Robert Eggers weirdfest The Lighthouse to further acclaim. It’s little wonder he’s being brought in for high profile, complex roles like this and franchise leaders like The Batman. His talent is well on display here, playing a crafty British spy who carries more cards than you realise.

It’s impossible to go into the details of the story or the many heist action sequences – a Nolan speciality – without giving away the whole plot. That, and it will take bloody ages to put them into words. Whilst there’s plenty of exposition, you’re going to feel like you’re spending most of the movie watching daring acrobatics, high speed chases and high tension subterfuge. They’re all well thought out, highly detailed set pieces that don’t always make sense in your head until they’re over.

There are some criticisms to be levelled at the works of Nolan. Some of the characters can feel robotic and he’s got his own set of tropes that feel like style over substance. Much like Quentin Tarantino, these foibles don’t bother me because the director is skilled at their craft and watching their films is just so much fun.

This is another home run for Nolan, a perfect blend of action and science fiction. The only thing holding it back is the characters lacking a relatable motivation, and some of their decisions at key moments feel out of character. Make sure you see it twice, though, as it is beautifully disorientating.

Rating: NINE out of TEN