Poised as the event film to ‘save cinema’ in a post-pandemic world, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been anxiously waiting in the wings till its release. Hotly anticipated as both the latest film from the industry’s most revered blockbuster filmmaker and for being the first notably big release for the re-opening of cinemas, there hasn’t been a motion picture like this to have your fingers crossed for since J.J. Abrams rescued Star Wars with The Force Awakens. Fortunately, those fingers can relax.
Time, and the manipulation of it, has fascinated Nolan right back to his non-linear thriller Memento twenty years ago and all the way up to Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk. With Tenet, the director has culminated two decades of barnstorming temporal storytelling into a 150-minute spy thriller that makes Inception’s narrative complexity look as basic as Disney Pixar’s Cars. The less said about the plot the better, but it boils down to The Protagonist (John David Washington, sporting an immaculate beard and enough tailored suits to make the folks in Kingsman blush) dashing about the world investigating ‘inverted’ objects, meaning that actions and entire scenes can play out in reverse. It’s an idea to be seen rather than told.
Those that have discovered the limitless creative possibilities of Snapchat’s reverse filter will thrill at seeing the same effect supported by a nine-figure budget. Bullets are inhaled back into their gun’s barrel (a pre-established trick from the opening of Memento) and cars are ‘un-crashed’. It is a unique, head-spinning piece of technical wizardry that is a cinematic delight. Nolan tinkers about with the concept; pushing it to the very extreme but never veering towards self-indulgence. Tenet maintains the muted colour palette that all of Nolan’s films have but there’s a notable usage of red and blue, with each colour corresponding to the state of time. It’s a simple idea set up in the film’s opening logos, but it works wonders to remind the audience what on earth is happening.
Washington anchors the film with just enough to wit to sustain the labyrinthine narrative by asking enough questions for the audience’s benefit, as well as packing some serious muscular presence during the exceptional action sequences. One such set piece is a high-concept hallway fight that might just out-do its counterpart from Inception. But Nolan, whose eye for action has exponentially increased with each blockbuster, also helms road heists, sophisticated shootouts, spectacular vehicular crashes and an adrenaline pumping opening of such bravura to rival The Dark Knight Rises’ plane ambush. If there is CGI in this film, it’s impossible to see and all of this is intensely scored by Ludwig Göransson who channels all the synths and bass he can find and unleashes them to near deafening effect.
Another notable change is that this is the first Nolan film since 2002’s Insomnia to not have the legendary Lee Smith as editor. The difference is practically invisible, as Jennifer Lame picks up the mantle and, in a herculean effort, deftly uses her shears to cut and stitch the sequences into an accessible order whilst also reversing a great deal. To put it succinctly, it’s blistering filmmaking.
However, there are lines and occasionally entire scenes where the sound mixing is nearly non-existent as dialogue is drowned out by sound effects and the film score (a soon to be infamous sailboat conversation is in desperate need of subtitles). Whether this is due to post-production occurring in lockdown and away from the studios or Nolan forcing his audience to concentrate as hard as possible is unclear. Furthermore, Nolan’s usual character-based dialogue can’t keep up with the intriguingly dense exposition. Of course, going to see a Nolan film means ideas, story and technical genius over characters, but it is only Elizabeth Debicki’s character Kat who gets the emotional heavy lifting and her dialogue doesn’t fully sell it. The cast are still uniformly strong though: Robert Pattinson drips charm as a fellow spy and Kenneth Branagh is a scene-chewing Russian villain who could easily inhabit a baddie from Timothy Dalton’s Bond era.
At this point, Nolan’s filmography can be defined as being fiercely apolitical and completely uninterested with the modern world. Brands, dates, years and ideology are discarded for the sake of achieving immortal filmmaking, meaning that new audiences can watch his films decades on and still find it fresh. Yet despite Tenet similarly aiming for timeless rather than timely, it is bizarre and uncanny to watch characters wearing masks in order to safely inhabit an ‘inverted’ world.
Nonetheless, this is filled with invigorating filmmaking and respects its audience’s capacity to think and follow. Feeling Tenet is incredible, but understanding it is like achieving enlightenment. Whilst perhaps edging closer to the later films of David Lean with its pictorial focus and a desire to be ‘true cinema’ at the cost of character, Tenet is still a refreshing, bewildering experience.
Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros., certificate 12A.