It’s exhilarating, mind-bending and the score is to die for. But has Christopher Nolan finally taken his affinity for high concept (read: utterly confusing) blockbusters too far?
Not many things are certain with ‘Tenet’, but one thing is: if you’re heading to the cinema to watch it this weekend, get ready for ‘Inception’ to feel like child’s play.
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‘Tenet’ follows The Protagonist (John David Washington) and his gentle-natured partner-in-crime Neil (Robert Pattinson) on their super-secret mission to sabotage a time inversion ploy that could end the world. In Mumbai, they meet with Priya (Dimple Kapadia), who points them in the direction of the wickedly powerful Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Soon, the hunt is on for something by the name of ‘241’, the purpose of which becomes clearer with time.
What follows is a whole lot of espionage, high-octane gunfights playing out in reverse (pretty damn cool to watch) and plenty of WTF moments.
Nolan (‘Memento’, ‘Interstellar’, ‘The Dark Knight Trilogy’) for decades has been fascinated with concepts of time, reality and memory. What we know, what we don’t know. The ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘when’ of it all.
‘Tenet’ is no exception. The writer-director described it as being to the spy genre what ‘Inception’ was to the heist genre. If you squint, you might even spot a couple of homages to Nolan’s 2010 hit. For starters, a hallway fight scene that features time inversion brings to mind the iconic gravity-defying hallway battle — and, maybe just because we were looking for it, a bullet spinning on a tabletop also felt like a small nod to Nolan’s dream-within-a-dream epic.
But, for all intents and purposes, ‘Inception’ sets out a much clearer premise than ‘Tenet’ does. For the first two thirds, as an audience member, you’re going to feel pretty useless. Get comfortable with it. Don’t worry — the guy next to you, who will inevitably inform you that you “just didn’t get it” and that “you need to watch it a second time”, probably has no clue what’s happening, either.
That’s because ‘Tenet’ relies on its twisty — and, frankly, mind-blowing — final act to justify its means. Any exposition that happens in the first half of the film will feel more like stray pieces of a dozen different puzzles. No matter how many pieces you manage to slot together by the second half, you’re still likely to get into your car afterwards to Google search ‘‘Tenet’ ending explained’.
Nolan also plays fast and loose with entropy, here. The filmmaker himself stated he researched the real-life implications of time inversion, but that the film is by no means scientifically accurate.
You’re left wondering if the film presents plot holes or if you’re simply not asking the right questions. Suspending disbelief is not unusual for any sci-fi action film, but when the motivations of characters seem equally vague and weak, well… the villain starts feeling very much like Thanos and his Infinity Stones.
The final problem is the audio. There’s no two ways about it — the dialogue in this movie is muddy and impossible to keep up with. There were several parts that were just begging for subtitles. Crucial points of characters plotting, planning and executing their mission were lost, adding to the overall confusion.
On the other hand, the score of ‘Tenet’ is a work of art. From the first notes of the opening scene at the Kiev Opera House, it’s clear that sound — and sound editing — is going to be the unsettling, unflinching and unwavering star of this film. Sitting in IMAX, you can feel it infiltrate your body. It’s a true credit to composer Ludwig Goransson, who succeeds in creating a set of heartbeats that expand in your chest and replace your own.
Underscored by chaotic dissonance and mounting crescendos, his work holds within it the entire emotional spectrum, from heartbreak and terror to anger and despair. Silence, too, becomes loud and untrustworthy. Without Goransson’s score, it’s hard to imagine ‘Tenet’, a highly technical movie, as a living thing.
(It’s worth noting that this kind of urgency isn’t unusual for Nolan; the auteur’s long-term collaborator Hans Zimmer — who was otherwise occupied composing for ‘Dune’ (2020) when ‘Tenet’ came knocking — crafted much of the same feeling for ‘Dunkirk’, never allowing the viewer to rest.)
Now, the thing audiences are probably looking for here is to see how Nolan managed to visually communicate time inversion — basically, things happening in reverse. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema worked with IMAX on engineering the technology that would allow these scenes to exist — and, without giving away too much, the result is honestly stunning, particularly when it’s used in combination with forward-moving entities. Simply as a groundbreaking feat of cinema to feast your eyes on, ‘Tenet’ is probably worth a repeat watch. Maybe even more than twice.
There were a few moments that detracted from the film’s overall impact. During an introductory scene where The Protagonist meets with Priya, there were minor continuity issues, with her hand gestures not matching up in the edit. In a movie of this complexity and magnitude (shot across seven different countries), where you’re already suspending your disbelief quite a bit, any minor disturbances are prone to break you out of your trance.
Then, there were a couple of contrived moments that the film fell back on. A small example is when The Protagonist is being searched by a security guard and tells him that where he’s from, he would buy him dinner first. It got a “heh” out of the audience, but it also felt too high school writing class to have made the final cut.
To this brilliant ensemble’s credit, however, performances were excellent across the board. Washington, as the calm, collected and self-sacrificial lead, managed to evade his father’s shadow in ‘Tenet’. But, you still caught an occasional glint of dad Denzel Washington in his eyes, particularly whenever he indulged in moments of wry humour.
Washington and Pattinson’s understated camaraderie — and their occasionally lighthearted back-and-forths — provided a much needed lightness in an otherwise aggressive film.
Debicki as the villain’s abused wife was outstanding in the more emotionally taxing scenes, though at times the basis of her character felt too much like ‘damsel in distress, but give her a gun’. Meanwhile, the repulsive villain himself, Sator, was played excellently by Branagh, though sometimes came across as too naive and forgiving for the sake of simply moving the plot along.
Supporting roles from Clemence Posey, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kapadia, Himesh Patel and Michael Caine were also convincing and well-cast.
Overall, ‘Tenet’ is ambitious, imaginative and pushes the bounds of filmmaking into new realms. It’s also a great way to kick-start idle minds after months of forced cinema closures around the world.
The bottom line is, everyone loves a good mystery, and it’s fun to try and figure out what really happened, no matter the stress and confusion it takes you to get there.
Plus, if your brain really hurts afterwards, you can always pop in ‘Inception’ for some light watching.
Don't miss it!
'Tenet' is out now in UAE cinemas.