Tenet (Film Review)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: An agent (John David Washington) working for a top-secret organization tries to prevent the triggering of a weapon that, through the use of inverted technology, could end all life on Earth.

REVIEW:  After months and months of delays, Christopher Nolan’s TENET is finally hitting theaters. As expected, cinemas in New York and L.A are still closed, and many may be reluctant to go watch a movie even if they have open theaters in their city. That makes a serious appraisal of Nolan’s film hard to do because make no mistake, this is worthy of a deep dive. Likely the most complex Nolan movie to date, it's almost an overwhelming first-time watch in the same way something like Ridley Scott's BLADE RUNNER might have been in 1982. You leave the theater not quite sure of what you just saw, maybe not even sure if you loved it or not (although I can't imagine anyone not at least liking it) but eager to go back for a revisit as soon as you can. Repeat viewings in theaters seem unlikely given the situation (nor is it a given people will be able to go at all). As a result, the only complete TENET reviews won't drop until the film hits home media where it can get the repeat viewings Nolan designed it for. 

One thing's for sure, it’s not hard to see why Nolan refused to let TENET skip theaters. It's a movie built to be taken-in on the biggest screen you can find, with 70mm IMAX the optimal way to watch it, although those screens are fewer and farther between these days. Much of the film is opened up to the full IMAX aspect ratio. Visually it’s a stunner, with Hoyte van Hoytema’s crystal clear 70mm photography a joy to behold. 

Like Nolan’s other films, the sound mix is aggressive, so much so that the opening action scene, where John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist storms an opera under siege, feels like an assault. Anyone wondering whether Ludwig Göransson’s score would live up to the standard set by Hans Zimmer can rest easy – it’s a classic Nolan score. But, the mixing of the dialogue is confounding. Many complained about the dialogue not being clear on INTERSTELLAR, and, at least where I saw TENET, this problem returned, with much of it bordering on indecipherable. I initially thought this might just be the theatre I saw it in (digital IMAX) but pretty much everyone’s who’s seen the movie at this point has the same complaint. My inkling is that Nolan had a specific mix in mind for the film and that any theatre not perfectly calibrated will botch the job.

Missing dialogue in a film like this is a problem, as the storyline is so intricate. TENET is like a puzzle. Imagine a James Bond film – backward. That’s this movie for better or worse. Luckily, it’s more often than not for the better. Impeccably shot and staged, Nolan doesn’t spoon-feed anything to the audience, making this an almost overwhelming watch at first glance. Somewhat in the mold of INCEPTION, but not at all a sequel as some have theorized, Washington, as shown in the trailers, is a CIA agent recruited into a beyond top-secret society, who are on the case of weapons whose physical properties are reversed. Bullets crafted this way are caught by guns. Without giving too much away, the film digs into time travel (in a sense) and no less than the fate of the entire world is on the line here. Washington plays a very non-nonsense super-spy who tangles with the film’s equivalent of a Bond villain – Kenneth Branagh’s Russian arms dealer. The baddie's got a gorgeous, abused trophy wife, played by Elizabeth Debicki, who wants to be free of her spouse, putting her in league with Washington, while Robert Pattinson is a mysterious fixer whose endgame is always in question.

The numerous action scenes are immense and probably the most ambitious Nolan has done to date. In terms of hand to hand combat, TENET ups the ante compared to his Batman movies, with a brief kitchen fight so well shot you’re won’t understand how anyone could have ever complained about how he shoots action. There’s s also a ton of firepower on display – far more than there even was in INCEPTION. The most jaw-dropping action sequence happens about midway through the film, involving a heist that’s partially done in reverse, but I can’t go into it much more than that.

Indeed, any prolonged discussion of the film’s plot will have to be on hold until more people have seen it, but the film is certainly an epic in every way possible. However, there are some issues that – for the moment – keep it from being top tier Nolan. For one, the story is frustrating, as you’re bombarded with so much info nothing becomes clear until the film’s conclusion, making it an occasionally frustrating watch – especially when much of the dialogue is muddled. Washington, who’s excellent as the protagonist, is a vague hero, in that we get no backstory at all. He’s dissuaded from giving anything away early in the film by Clémence Poésy's character, who’s like his Q. We never learn a thing about him. Then again, we learned very little about James Bond until the Daniel Craig-era and that didn’t stop him from becoming an icon. And make no mistake, Bond is the model here, with Washington elaborately tailored throughout, after being shamed by a cameoing Michael Caine for merely wearing Brooks Brothers. Washington should rocket to the top of everyone’s A-list after this, and it’s a shame that the conversation around the film is mostly, and unavoidably, about the way it’s being released as Washington deserves his moment.

As expected, Robert Pattinson steals scenes as Washington’s wily defacto partner, very much in the mold of Tom Hardy’s character in INCEPTION, while Debicki adds gravitas and empathy to a role that could have been standard issue in a lesser action film. Branagh chews the scenery as the larger than life baddie but also has his moments of humanity which give the film an edge, while smaller roles are more interesting than usual thanks to an intriguing supporting cast, including a nearly unrecognizable Aaron Taylor Johnson, Dimple Kapadia as an arms dealer, and best of all, YESTERDAY’s Himesh Patel as Pattinson’s wisecracking associate.

In the end, my first impression of Tenet is surprisingly mixed despite my unabashed love for all of Nolan's films. I also strongly feel like it’s a movie that will improve immeasurably upon repeated viewings, where the plot becomes clear allowing it to be appreciated on its own merits outside of the COVID-19 affected time we find ourselves stuck in the middle of. Right now, I’d grade it on the low side for me as far as Nolan films go, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if five years down the road, we’re all talking about how brilliant this movie is. 




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Source: JoBlo.com

About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.