Christopher Nolan directs John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki in this sci-fi thriller where a secret agent tries to stop a technology that reverses objects through time.
Positives first. The tailored suits… WOOF! Washington and Pattison are wonderful fresh movie stars who both relish the Bondian aspects of the production and their characters. If there is chance to be cool or rakish or masculine they exploit it fully. I doubt anyone watching this isn’t excited afterwards for what they do next in their careers. It is the second blockbuster in a row where Nolan doesn’t rely on A-Lister to sell his massive concepts and complicated machinations. The mission here conjures up five excellent set-pieces in the first half. An opera siege, a bungee jump breach, a kitchen fight, a plane crash heist and a 70 MPH robbery. Any and all are top flight physical stunts and grand scale spectacle, among the best we have seen on the big screen since Craig first became 007. True live action cinema. Think Heat or Miami Vice. You can feel the grit of the tarmac, scrape of the metal, rush of the wind, devastation of the cheese grater, impact of the bullets. None of these thrilling roustabouts rely particularly on the time inversion central hook and when it does surreally enter the fray, the weird glimpse of physics in reverse are a pleasing tease for things to come. Nolan delivers enough pure action cinema that the ticket price is justified before a character has even considered doing a Marty McFly. Whether you embrace what comes after is up to you.
Now the negatives. Tenet has a lot of information to waft at you. Some is theoretical quantum physics. Some is sophisticated narrative foreplay. Some is just wordy terminology soup. All is often constantly competing with a loud, overpowering soundtrack of jarring discordant notes and dominant background noise. For much of the plot, characters wear gas masks, in assault rifle battles, in already chaotic environments with pulse raising music pummelling you. At best, and I’m two watches in, you can pick up, follow and process four fifths of what is being said. Nolan got away with a similar trick with Inception where he had a lot of heady information to transfuse to us while the action was in steady flow but there we were already lowering ourselves into the mind bending world as we were being taught of its rules… here we are trying to enjoy a spy thriller while inaudible cut scenes and ticker tapes of knowledge overload swamp us simultaneously.
Until the final set piece we can just about keep up. I’m a pretty astute viewer and while I never felt lost on first viewing in the first two hours I knew a long chat with Natalie and a second or third watch would clarify more. But the final war sequence… without giving anything away except it all goes a bit Halo / Battleground for twenty minutes… is barely comprehensible on initial watch. I knew what the strategy and endgame and stakes of all the mass scale carnage was. But I couldn’t for the life of me follow swarms of masked, impossible to hear troops… some of whom were moving backwards in time and some of whom might be doppelgängers of themselves. Second view I gleaned more and could focus on different aspects but really I think I’d need to be able to whack the subtitles on, pause the action frequently and map out who is doing what and when with a very big sheet of paper to truly understand what goes down in the big finale. One character tells us in as many words “You just need faith that reality is reality and what has happened has happened.” And I’m willing to give Nolan the faith that he has achieved a holeless plot that intertwines all its narrative fingers. We have no reason to doubt him. Yet there’s no denying you feel very left out, uninvolved and disinvested from the eye popping maelstrom of faceless violence and kinetics that Tenet resolves itself with. Two other characters a continent away are having an intercut Hitchcockian stand-off at the same moment and it feels far more rewarding to concentrate on that than the show-off killbox of garbled confusion. Tenet certainly is high-end, unashamed blockbuster cinema but will leave even the smarties and bullshitters scratching their heads as the credits unfurl. Never lend money to anyone who claims they could fathom it completely on initial viewing.
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We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/