The Plot: A CIA agent known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) finds himself in a fight for not only his safety but that of the entire world too. There is a power shift in play that revolves around antagonist Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), a determined Russian who holds a secret that could change the fabric of our world. To get to Andrei, The Protagonist must first get to his trophy wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a woman who has her own reasons for escaping Andrei’s iron grip. With the help of fellow operative Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist must adapt to Andrei’s unique way of playing war games with the fate of the world hanging in the balance…
The Verdict: A tenet is a principle held true by a member of a profession. In the case of Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited new film ‘Tenet’, that principle is the enduring power of cinema to transport audiences to another world and immerse them in something they haven’t seen before. That’s something that has been lost in recent months as cinemas were shuttered, people were confined to their homes and streaming platforms took precedence. Until now that is. Put the remote control away, grab a bag of popcorn and settle down into a comfy socially-distanced cinema seat. The big screen cinema experience is back in grand style and who better than the modern Kubrick himself to remind us why we love going to the movies in the first place.
There’s a lot riding on ‘Tenet’ of course. It’s been held up as the poster boy to get audiences back into the cinema, at a time when the whole nature of film exhibition is in a seemingly constant state of flux. While some studios have experimented with PVOD titles, Nolan has doggedly stayed committed to the theatrical experience. That’s no surprise given his commitment to actual celluloid film and shooting as much as possible for real. After several false starts, ‘Tenet’ is indeed finally here in a variety of formats though Nolan’s preference is for IMAX and 70mm. You’ll see why when the film explodes onto the screen from the tense opening seconds and through to the symbolic closing shot.
Is ‘Tenet’ enough though to kick-start cinema-going again among the masses? It’s a ballsy and confident move to release it in a compromised marketplace. On the strength of this film, which will most likely require multiple viewings, the answer is a resounding yes. It’s a shot in the arm for a film industry reeling from a pandemic that has disrupted and affected all aspects of production, distribution and exhibition. For this is a film that not only brings on the Hollywood spectacle in style but tickles the little gray cells in a way that only Nolan can get away with. Well, it might melt your mind as you try to keep up with its urgent, frantic pace – but in a good way of course. It flies by in 2.5 hours, holding your attention throughout as you wonder what Nolan and his team will throw at you both visually and mentally (and it gets a bit mental at times too).
To say anymore would enter spoiler territory and given Nolan’s preference for secrecy, the less known about it the better. It’s safe to say though that it touches upon themes that Nolan has explored before, such as the nature of time and its impact on the human experience. There’s a theory that time is like a river. It’s perceived as flowing in one direction, but it could be diverted and manipulated into other channels. What Nolan does here in both his thoughtful script and consistently confident onscreen direction is quite ingenious, staging mind-boggling how-did-they-do-that action sequences like nothing you’ve seen before. It’s enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen and with the immersive experience of the cinema, no chance for distractions. No need for 3D either – this eye-popping film shot across multiple continents comes at you like a freight train and dares you to keep up, in true Nolan style.
It’s certainly the closest that Nolan has come to a James Bond film, something which he’s hinted at before in Inception’s bravura snowy base set piece. But with Bond guardians Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson committed to the principle that a Bond director can’t be bigger than Bond himself, Nolan found himself shut out with Steven Spielberg in that regard. No harm though. Nolan’s twist on the spy thriller is very much his own beast, shooting off in dizzying directions as you steady yourself and occasionally pick your jaw off the floor. ‘Every Time To Die’ perhaps? Maybe the Bond guardians should give him a call after all, now that this particular Bond cycle is about to wrap up. A new Bond needs a new re-invention and Nolan is a director with many interesting ideas.
Is ‘Tenet’ a little too smart for its own good though? Perhaps. As it plays around with its sequences and astonishing editing (by Jennifer Lame), it asks you re-evaluate what you just saw from a different angle. At times, this can be brushed past with little time to absorb the narrative impact. There are also times when the film doesn’t engage as much as it should, introducing some familiar faces for only one scene when it appears that there’s more going on in the background. But like any good magician, Nolan is not going to reveal too much. These are minor flaws which don’t upset the delicate equilibrium of story and spectacle that Nolan maintains throughout. With a solid international cast headed up by rising star John David Washington (son of Denzel), these are well-defined characters to care about as they globe-trot in a race against – or should that be for – time. To paraphrase a character in another Nolan film, Tenet is the hero that the film industry deserves… and the one that audiences need right now.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Tenet (UK / USA / 12A / 150 mins)
In short: Every Time To Die
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clemence Poesy, Michael Caine.