TL;DR – A film that blasts onto the screen with a roar of trumpets only to get bogged down in its own worldbuilding.
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
There are some filmmakers out there whose work has been consistently engaging that every new release gets immediately put on the must-watch list. For me, these are filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve, Ryan Coogler, Roger Deakins, Patty Jenkins, Taika Waititi, Wayne Blair, George Miller, and if I am honest with myself, at the top of that list for me is Christopher Nolan. His film Inception is still on my Top 10 Films list, and his work is always interesting even if like Interstellar the film does not capture me. Well, we live in precarious times, and I was not sure if I was going to be able to see Tenet in some form for a while, but thankfully I did get to see a screening today, and well, I think this is a film that is going to fall in the latter.
So to set the scene, we open in on an opera house in Kyiv, Ukraine, as a group of armed terrorists surge through the band and occupy the theatre. As the police arrive, one van is not what it seems because onboard is a CIA team led by our unnamed protagonist (John David Washington). This whole attack is a ruse to take out an operative whose cover has been blown, and it is our protagonist’s job to get the agent out. It all went wrong, but instead of dying to a cyanide capsule, he wakes up on a boat heading to an off-shore wind farm. It is here where he is informed that he is dead to the world, but a new opportunity has opened up. He is to explore Tenet, a mysterious phrase that is being used by arms smugglers and the like and which could be more dangerous than a missing nuclear weapon.
Now and again there is a film that has a cast that hits every point, with no weak links and Tenet is such a film. After BlacKkKlansman, I knew that John David Washington could be a strong leading actor, but he takes it to a whole new level here. There is power in his performance, the way he moves and talks it captivates you in every scene. I have never seen a film where Elizabeth Debicki was not on point in every moment, and Tenet is no exception. The big shock here was Kenneth Branagh who plays Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch and main protagonist. I have seen Kenneth in a lot of films, but I was unprepared for just how menacing he would be. There were scenes where I was terrified by his performance. The supporting cast is also engaging with some great moments from Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, and of course because it is a Nolan film, Michael Caine. It also leans into that thirst direction by having Aaron Taylor-Johnson in full military uniform.
Where Tenet shines is in its production, which blows you away throughout the film. Nolan likes using practical spaces where possible, and this is used throughout the film to bring scope to the action scenes. You see this in full glory in the opening sequence as the camera pans down through the musicians as the armed terrorists take over the theatre. It adds to the tension and terror and cut to the core of me and my fears. We also get to see this in the wind farms and the car chase through Tallinn, Estonia. From talking to a lot of people, the visuals of the time reversing are going to fascinate or frustrate you, I found myself in the first, but you might be in the later.
The production also extends to the music which dominates parts of the film. There is this sequence that is full of tension where it would take one of many moving parts to fail slightly for it to all fall apart. While this is happening the music is pounding into you with a beat that is the same as your pulsing heart. This heightens every moment and brings you to the edge of your seat. However, on the flip side, I found there to be huge problems with the sound mix, with a lot of the dialogue difficult and sometimes impossible to hear. I was going to write this off as just an issue with the cinema that I watched it in. However, I see a lot of others comment about this same issue. Given this has been a problem in the past for Nolan’s films, most notably in The Dark Knight Rises, it is frustrating it was not fixed before release.
These sound issues amplify the biggest problem with the film, which is its narrative. Now, while I will try to be vague, because we are discussing the story, there may be some [SPOILERS] ahead. When you compare Tenet to say Inception, what you get is a reverse in plot density. Inception dumped you into this world from the start, but then spent the whole first act explaining all the backstories, worldbuilding, characters, and potential issues allowing you to go along for the ride, the narrative equivalent of eating your salad before the steak. However, in Tenet, they spend the whole first act hinting at what might be, before giving a little nod in the second, before overwhelming you in the third. So while it is great to see the same action scene from different perspectives, you’re left going “wait, what?”. All of this is not helped by some of the critical exposition moments being drowned out.
In the end, do we recommend Tenet? Well, this is a difficult one to say. If you found Inception daunting, then this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a solid action flick to see, it does have its moments, but the action is a bit too far in-between for me to recommend it. If you are a fan of Nolan’s work, well then you already have your ticket booked if you can. However, if you are looking for a film that plays with the notion of time with a strong aesthetic, well then this is one for you
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Tenet
Directed by – Christopher Nolan
Written by – Christopher Nolan
Music by – Ludwig Göransson
Cinematography by – Hoyte van Hoytema
Edited by – Jennifer Lame
Production/Distribution Companies – Syncopy & Warner Bros. Pictures
Starring – John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Martin Donovan, Fiona Dourif, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Denzil Smith, Sean Avery, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Rich Ceraulo Ko & Mélanie Laurent
Rating – Australia: M; Canada: PG; Germany: 12; New Zealand: M; United Kingdom: 12A; United States: PG-13