Ah TENET … we’ve been waiting for this one for a while now. Its theatrical release postponed many times due to the pandemic, this film was the new hope of Hollywood and Warner Bros. Studios. to revive cinemas in North America. Betting on the talent of Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy) for the blockbuster spectacle, where the majority of the scenes are shot in IMAX to give the maximum impact to the action, this first “real” blockbuster in times of pandemic is in itself a social experience. Is a visual roller coaster of thrills like this one enough to make the audience want to regroup in a screening room with strangers? Will it be successful? It remains to be seen, but spectators seem to be already more timid than usual, you can feel it in the theatres.
A new film by Christopher Nolan is an unmissable rendezvous since his major worldwide success with The Dark Knight (2008), he is the new true master of modern blockbuster…at least for good movies that is. His new TENET is no exception, we recognize Nolan’s cinema right from the first hectic scenes in an opera house in Kiev. On the other hand, it is with a super complex script, difficult dialogues and a superfluous narrative component that it makes it difficult for me to evaluate this film. Is it good? At first glance, yes … but it’s hard to be clear without revealing all the details.
A huge fan of the ’60s spy cinema of his childhood, Nolan invites us into a world filled with government organizations and billionaire villains with evil plans to start World War III (no less). An unnamed CIA special agent, simply called The Protagonist (a very fit and agile John David Washington), is recruited by a secret organization after a botched rescue mission in Ukraine. This organization, which is called “Tenet”, introduces him to a supernatural physical concept where certain matters on earth (simple objects and even human beings) can be reversed and go back in the past. In other words, via a centrifugal machine, it is possible to travel through time at the same linear rhythm as reality (it doesn’t take a few seconds as it does in Marty McFly’s Delorean). The Protagonist is sent on a mission to hunt down a machiavellian Russian arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who is behind the manufacture of reverse ammunition and who threatens to disrupt reality with a time algorithm. With the help of his wife (Elizabeth Debicki) and his sidekick in Tenet (Robert Pattinson), they will try to stop Sator’s plans through the use of time travel.
By the way, the title TENET is a palindrome, so a word that is spelled the same way from left to right as it is from right to left. It’s a shrewd nod from Nolan, an hommage to the concept of time inversion.
Just from the synopsis, you see that this is not an easy movie to explain. I myself will have to go back and see it a few times to get a better idea of the story and the meaning of the ending. First off, it’s no surprise that I tell you that this is a visually spectacular achievement. Cinematography captured by IMAX technology gives way to colorful and deep imagery, as it’s always the case in Nolan’s films. Despite the clunky editing which is a bit too fast and loaded of jump cuts between scenes, it was a technical success. The highway chase scene and the crash of a gigantic Boeing 747 in an airport hangar will leave an impression … because they are real stunts (no computer images believe it or not).
A Nolan-style movie also means larger-than-life action scenes, and these are especially noteworthy. Notably, there is a reverse hand-to-hand combat scene at Oslo Airport that has been mastered to perfection by John David Washington, who demonstrates physical agility close to what Keanu Reeves achieves in John Wick. Robert Pattinson is charismatic and convincing, same with Elizabeth Debicki, on whom the emotional part of the film is based (however thin it may be). Kenneth Branagh, on the other hand, is a bit peculiar in the antagonist’s shoes. There is a discrepancy in tone between his spine-chilling mood swings and his many barely comprehensible mumbled lines. This is also a recurring phenomenon, a large number of lines of dialogues are hardly understandable and often buried under an imposing soundtrack (signed by Ludwig Göransson and not Hans Zimmer this time).
That being said, as the first wave of criticism hinted at, TENET has several flaws, more specifically in its narrative track. Might as well say it, even if theoretically interesting, this story is TOO complex! Nolan really doesn’t make it easy for us when all the characters mutter so quickly when it comes to explaining the concept of inversion. At the very end, as Nolan liked to do in Inception, you’ll start to make connections between scenes and understand the link between the characters a little better. His latest film, Dunkirk, was more action and suspense than story, so the identity of the characters was left unknown. This is also the case here. With the exception of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and possibly Sator, everyone else has little history and they automatically get into the action. It’s a bit of a shame because you can’t get attached to them as much as you’d like.
I fully understand why some critics destroyed this film following the press screening. This is far from Nolan’s best work, as the majority of his previous films tell much better stories. TENET‘s narrative is immensely complicated to be fully appreciated, and very few traits are given to the characters. That being said, you have to give Caesar what is Caesar’s, Christopher Nolan is a supreme master of action cinema, so the film is no less amazing as a thrill ride.
Have no fear, it’s not bad at all, but I recommend that you be fully awake and pay attention to all the little details during your experience. You will be confused after a first viewing, which is normal. Give yourself the chance to see it a second time and search the internet to fully have the finale explained to you.
PS – I left a behind-the-scenes video clip of the film to give you a better idea of the scale of the stunts and the visual effects. It’s fascinating to see Nolan working only with “real” effects and not CGI.