Tenet ★★★★

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not Christopher Nolan’s biggest fan. I don’t think the legendary director is bad by any stretch of the imagination, I just don’t feel he’s ever exactly made a five star movie before, at least not by my metric. Nolan IS, however, a director of notable importance. Nolan’s films remind me of Kubrick’s in the sense that they’re often remote, cold, devoid of warmth or human quality and are meticulously designed; they’re also among the only high concept, big budget original blockbusters that manage to get made in the modern film landscape. Not all of Nolan’s films knock it out of the park, but they’re always worth paying attention to, but Tenet actually manages to be pretty good. 

Tenet follows an unnamed government intelligence agent (John David Washington) as he’s recruited into a hyper secret agency that deals in matters relating to the phenomenon of temporal inversion, objects and people moving backwards in time. With the help of a shady accomplice (Robert Pattinson), our protagonist follows a trail of breadcrumbs to a Russian arms dealer and his abused wife (Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki) and uncovers a conspiracy that threatens the safety of the entire world.

Tenet is a hard movie to describe. If you’ve seen the movie you already know how inadequate my description of it is. I can really see Nolan straining, doing his damndest to write something with the kind of high concept mind bending appeal that Inception had, he doesn’t quite reach those heights, but he delivers something solid anyway. Tenet is pretty involved, most of its characters are simple (even undercooked) but just on a conceptual level the film can feel pretty obtuse at times, it doesn’t help that the first act is loaded with a ton of exposition that barely makes sense in the moment (I swear it makes more sense as you watch). When things get moving, things start coalescing and by the second half I felt like I had a good grasp on what was going on and maybe knew as much as I was intended to know all along.

Tenet’s characters do the telling, but the action does all the showing. Characters explain at length how time inversion works but our ability as the audience to fully understand it is very limited, but after a couple action scenes witnessing things in motion, the rules become pretty clear. The action isn’t just cool to watch, it’s integral to the audiences understanding of how the rules of Tenet’s world work. The action aren’t simply high-octane spectacles, they make the movie make sense. They are pretty cool though.

Tenet is also a sexy looking film. This has some of the best cinematography in any Christopher Nolan film and I was regularly stunned. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema clearly has an eye for epic scale and scope in a way that never obscures or diminishes the characters in it and the colors all pop in a way I don’t typically expect from Nolan’s work. Also, the mixed use of both backwards and forwards photography, while not as mind-bending as something like Inception, was dazzling, disorienting and fascinating as hell to watch.

Tenet still has all the negatives one might associate with Christopher Nolan’s work. I might be beating a dead horse here but the audio design isn’t my favorite, many scenes bury hushed dialogue under loud music and it prompted me to watch this movie constantly turning the volume up and down as scenes demanded it. Also if you want fleshed out, human-seeming characters this movie was never going to have that. Also, I mean, Tenet is at least partially up its own ass, it’s not nearly as pretentious as some people have said but still. The first act of this movie is wall to wall conversations of people explaining things that don’t really make sense and it’s a bit of a slog. If you can get through the first act, it’s smooth sailing from there.

Tenet is a somewhat clunky but incredibly fascinating sci-fi action blockbuster and its undeniably original. This is a visual treat, an imaginative, complex and dazzling epic that, while rough around the edges, sticks the landing and manages to make sense of itself before the credits roll. The performances are excellent (Kenneth Branagh gets extra points for being almost unrecognizable), the set pieces are super fucking cool and Tenet is a good film if you don’t mind being disoriented at times. Again, this isn’t nearly the best Nolan film, but I was feeling it.