“Tenet” Movie Review


     Since arriving with his breakthrough film “Memento” (2000), Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation, having built an impressive resume of spellbinding event films spanning everything from pulse pounding historical epics to mind bending action thrillers. The best in this business are typically identifiable by trademarks they often employ in each of their films in order to tell a story and Nolan is no exception.  The director, who pens the original screenplays that build the foundation for these visual spectaculars, utilizes the element of time as a key method of moving the story forward, or backwards, as was the case in “Memento” and has now come full circle with “Tenet”.

     “Tenet” may well be Nolan’s deepest dive yet into how time affects the way a story unfolds on screen.  And that’s saying something given the way time is presented in films such as “Inception” (one minute in real life is a week in a dream.), “Interstellar” (a few minutes on a planet is twenty years for those parked just outside its atmosphere.), or “Dunkirk” (events are depicted as they take place over a day, week, and month.).  Here, Nolan introduces a concept of which a supporting character tells us we are not meant to understand, but rather only feel.  You’ll exit the theater likely holding on to that since there never is a cohesive explanation given for the logic defying visuals you will have just witnessed.  In “The Matrix”, it was as simple as we are projections of ourselves in a computer simulated construct, and thus our minds can allow us to perform actions not possible in the real world.  “Tenet” offers no such simplicity.

     The film opens with a thunderous action sequence as terrorists suddenly arrive at a packed concert hall in Kiev, Ukraine with nefarious intentions.  Outside, SWAT team members ready themselves to enter the building and presumably save lives.  One of them is a character we will only know as the Protagonist, played by John David Washington (“Blackkklansman”), as we are shown he and his immediate team are likely not a part of the larger group when the local police department’s patch is distributed and affixed to their gear just before they embark on their mission.  What is that mission?  Well, it’s clearly not the same as the others entering the fray.  They seem to avoid the terrorists in the main room and go straight to one of the upper level boxes in order to retrieve a specific person.  Maybe they are CIA? Perhaps there is an important agency asset who needs extraction?  

     It’s not explained, but the result leads to the Protagonist being captured and tortured.  And when he follows protocol by taking a poison pill, he drifts off believing his duty is done.  But then he awakens, having been treated medically and on a large boat somewhere in the world.  A man tells him he has passed a test many do not, and is now on a new team with a new directive he doesn’t choose to explain. Instead offering the word Tenet for him to follow up on.

     Essentially, a coalition of government agencies from around the world have discovered a technology that is being deployed in the future and can be transported to the past.  People and objects can experience actions in reverse, thus giving someone with ill intentions to ability to change the course of history and undo a series of actions crucial to a specific plan or goal.  That’s simplifying things substantially, and you may not come away with an explanation like this after viewing the film.  But let it marinate a bit, and a lot of what’s presented in Nolan’s standard loud and tightly edited style will begin to come into focus.

     The man in possession of this dangerous technology both in the present and the future is a foreign arms dealer named Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), who has a plan in motion to end the world.  The Protagonist learns Andrei’s wife, Kat (Elizabith Debicki), is a victim of his constant abuse and utilizes her cooperation to get closer to the Russian’s operation.  Working with another agent, Neill (Robert Pattinson), the duo moves through various locales in an attempt to peel away the various layers of Andrei’s organization and determine what exactly he’s trying to do.  It’s never actually clear to the audience, but we assume it’s bad.

     All of this proves to be a creative canvas for Nolan to unspool several eye popping action sequences, each of which seems determined to outdo the last.  The best of them are presented at different stages of the film, where we believe we understand what the intentions of the characters are, only to find out there are other characters unseen in the exact same sequence, but operating in a different realm of time.  I know, it doesn’t make sense, but like “Inception”, Nolan is playing with one of the most original movie ideas we’ve seen in years.  So you have to figure this one is going to be a doozy.  

     As you would expect for a film that is said to have cost north of $200 million, the technical aspects of “Tenet” are exceptional.  And the seamlessly rendered action sequences are heightened greatly by Ludwig Goransson’s pounding score that is often loud enough to drown out the dialogue, which is yet another Nolan hallmark.  The entire experience is the kind of ride you want to see on the big screen, as the images courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Dunkirk”, “Interstellar”) have never looked better in a film where the visual punch is clearly its most important aspect.  “Tenet” is that proverbial mystery box, likely designed through Nolan’s extensive imagination to be the kind of film we as filmgoers will endlessly debate and dissect for years to come.  GRADE: A