Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel, Dimple Kapadia, Martin Donovan, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Michael Caine
Runtime: 2 hrs 30 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language and Some Violence)
Released By: Warner Bros
Opening Day: 27 August 2020
Synopsis: John David Washington is the new Protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s original sci-fi action spectacle “Tenet.” Armed with only one word—Tenet—and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time. Not time travel. Inversion.
You won’t find a more closely guarded yet eagerly anticipated movie this year than ‘Tenet’, described as writer-director Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious yet. Little has been revealed about its plot, except that it has to do with a secret agent – known only in the movie as The Protagonist (John David Washington) – who is recruited by a shadowy Government organisation to prevent World War III from being wrought by time inversion.
Time has always fascinated Nolan, right from his crime thriller ‘Memento’ from two decades ago, to his heist movie ‘Inception’ a decade ago, and even to his last World War II movie ‘Dunkirk’. Here, Nolan goes even further than all his earlier films, suggesting that time can not only be reversed but also co-exist simultaneously between past and present, such that people can move backwards and forwards through time at the same time.
It is an audacious proposition no doubt; but as straightforward as it might sound on paper, you’ll know if you’ve seen any one of Nolan’s previous works that it is a lot more complex in practice. True enough, we must admit that we found ourselves rather perplexed by its concepts, comprising algorithms, the Manhattan project and the grandfather paradox among others. Even with a generous amount of exposition delivered by Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine and Hindi legend Dimple Kapadia, we doubt anyone would be able to keep it with its multiple narrative loops at first viewing.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining; indeed, even as you might end up befuddled, even frustrated, at its physics and logic, there’s no denying that you’ll be thoroughly hooked from the get-go by Nolan’s James Bond-equivalent. Without naming his Protagonist, Nolan has fashioned a Bond-style espionage thriller, with some time-twisting science-fiction thrown in to up the stakes.
Within its two-and-a-half hour runtime, ‘Tenet’ brings its audience on a dizzying globe-trotting adventure – beginning in Kiev with a terrorist attack on a packed opera house; to Mumbai to meet the enigmatic wife (Kapadia) of an arms dealer; to Oslo for a jaw-dropping raid on a vault on the airside of an airport; and to the Mediterranean coast where the film’s villain Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) makes his home on board a luxurious yacht. It’s as expansive as you can imagine, and that’s not even counting the other stopover locations such as the cliffs of Italy’s Amalfi Coast or the spare Nysted Wind Farm in Denmark.
At least Washington has for company Robert Pattinson’s intelligence officer Neil, who proves an invaluable ally in each one of his daring missions; the chemistry between Washington and Pattinson is understated, but their sheer charisma breathes humanity into the otherwise coolly calculated proceedings. Ditto for Elizabeth Debicki, as Andrei’s estranged wife Kat; while it would have been all-too easy to paint her as a Bond girl, Nolan’s writing gives her character more depth and purpose than you would expect, especially in relation to Branagh’s effectively unsubtle villain.
Yet more so than any of his other movies. ‘Tenet’ is propelled by its spectacular action set pieces, most of it done practically without the help of any CGI; among the most impressive include a freight plane that Neil’s crew hijacks on the tarmac and crashes into one of the nearby cargo buildings, a freeway car chase with vehicles moving in both directions simultaneously, and a military-style invasion of a private underground complex with explosions happening in reverse. Like we said, even if you do not quite grasp the logic behind it, you can surely appreciate the tentpole artistry in applying ‘temporal inversion’ to the non-stop action.
That almost singular focus on science and kinetics comes at the expense of emotion, and if that is one glaring flaw in ‘Tenet’, it is that it fails to develop its characters in any meaningful way. The closest one comes to appreciating any of the ensemble is Kat‘s longing to be reunited with her young son Max, part of the psychological abuse which she endures being in a joyless marriage with Andrei. Yet those looking for the sort of emotional anchor as that which Leonardo DiCaprio’s character had with his wife in ‘Inception’ will come off sorely disappointed, because it isn’t clear what Washington is driven by other than to prevent Armageddon.
Certainly, those eagerly awaiting the sort of big-scale cinematic spectacle that Nolan is known for since ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy will love every minute of ‘Tenet’. His blockbuster has been touted as the reason to head back to the cinemas, and let’s just say it fully lives up to that promise. What it demands in return is that you embrace its convoluted machinations, including time travel paradoxes, quantum physics and “temporal pincer movements” that feed into a palindromic narrative concept; even if you go ‘WTF’, know that it is part of the experience, an experience which Nolan warns through a character – “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”
(Big, bold and electrifying, ‘Tenet’ is Christopher Nolan’s cocktail of James Bond with science-fiction, as confounding as it is astonishing)
Review by Gabriel Chong