Starring: John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman), Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse), Elizabeth Debicki (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), Dimple Kapadia (Rudaali), Himesh Patel (Yesterday), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Michael Caine (Get Carter), Clémence Poésy (127 Hours)
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Runtime: 2 hours 30 mins
Release Date: 26th August (UK), 3rd September (US)
Cinemas in the UK have been open for roughly a month now, but there’s been very little incentive to go back. Partly due to fears about safety, but also just a lack of enticing releases; it’s mostly just been reruns, obscure indies and just generally films that don’t demand being seen on the big screen. Whilst most studios delayed their releases for this year or made them available to stream at home, Tenet was always seen as a certainty for cinematic release, mainly at the behest of Christopher Nolan himself. Known for his passion for the traditional cinema experience, Nolan’s insistence on bringing the film to movie theatres come hell or high water has been seen as the make-or-break moment for these venues. With Disney backing away for now by putting Mulan up for premium streaming, the future of cinemas has been saddled on the shoulders of Tenet, which is both a momentous and frightening prospect.
Even with all of the precautions taken by cinema chains and myself as an audience member, going back to the cinema in the midst of an ongoing pandemic was still a dicey prospect; I won’t lie, my anxiety was high as I sat down and the film finally began. However, even in a socially-distanced theatre with my mask on and being extremely cautious of what I touched, eventually I found myself comfortably back in my home away from home. The only real disappointment of the experience was that, as good as Tenet is in many aspects, I fear it’s ultimately going to be more remembered for the tumultuous nature of its release than for anything in the film itself.
Like many Nolan films, Tenet has been marketed in a way to obscure much of the story in secrecy, even down to the exact nature of its time-bending conceit. It’s a tactic that certainly preserves the surprises of the movie, but also makes it incredibly hard to review. The best I can do is say that Tenet does for time travel what Inception did for dreams, so if that film’s approach to its premise left you perplexed or annoyed, this one is probably not for you either. That said, as unique and visually captivating as many aspects of the film are, there is also an unnerving familiarity to the entire production. Much in the same unfortunate vein as Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, Christopher Nolan’s style has reached a point where it has stopped being distinctive and started to feel tiresome. The first half of the film is frustratingly slow and dreary, only waking up for brief spurts of action that are cleverly executed but lack audience investment. The dialogue is 90% just exposition as characters exchange unnatural dialogue filled with scientific technobabble and philosophical musings, making it hard to care about the context of anything happening on screen. It’s a difficult film to follow at times; not because its story or ideas are particularly complicated, but because it gets so tedious at points that it is hard to pay attention. As bombastic and fascinating as many of its concepts and set pieces are, it’s all delivered with Nolan’s typical po-faced self-seriousness with nary a trace of humanity, and it just sucks much of the possible fun out of the movie.
However, once it hits the halfway mark and starts really embracing the full potential of its premise, the film not only finds its groove but also retroactively makes the preceding half better in retrospect. The film’s pacing kicks into high gear, the action sequences start being exciting rather than just nifty, and even the characters start to actually come to life as stakes are raised and relationships take interesting turns. Much like Memento or The Prestige, it’s a film that certainly entices you to watch it again for how its revelations recontextualise early scenes, and perhaps with time and reflection its quality may improve. With that said, its early fumbling still handicaps its overall enjoyment in a way Nolan’s previous mind-bending efforts didn’t. In his efforts to top himself, he has ended up making something too complex, focusing so much on crafting the mechanics of his world that he has ended up sacrificing the character, wit and energy that made his other films so consistently entertaining.
After a filmography mostly featuring white dudes in nice suits as main characters, it’s nice to see Nolan mix it up a bit and make his main character a Black dude in a nice suit. Jokes aside, John David Washington is a charismatic actor and his natural charm does a lot of heavy lifting as Tenet’s nameless lead. He’s something of a blank slate due to the nature of his character’s profession, but Washington brings subtleties to his performance that demonstrates a degree of humanity to this otherwise no-nonsense man on a mission. Elizabeth Debicki is as alluring as ever as Kat, giving easily the most emotionally vulnerable performance in the film as a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, though the film unfortunately boxes her in as a damsel-in-distress until the third act. Kenneth Branagh makes for an interesting choice as the film’s villain Sator, clearly having brushed up on his Russian accent since his questionable stab at one in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, giving a brutal and vicious performance but not without completely losing Branagh’s signature magnetism.
There’s a lot of great talent in small supporting roles throughout the film, some of whom only get one or two scenes before disappearing. There’s of course the expected Michael Caine cameo, but there’s also Clémence Poésy in a small role as a scientist who introduces Washington to the time-warping conceit of the plot, Himesh Patel as one of his accomplices, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a military figure who arrives late into the second act. Dimple Kapadia, a respected Indian actress unknown to most western audiences, gets more screen time than all of these stars combined, and she delivers a strong performance that makes me hope she gets some more mainstream attention. However, the film’s unquestionable MVP is Robert Pattinson as Washington’s right-hand man Neil. In quite an odd turn, the usually brooding actor ends up being the one easily having the most fun, delivering much of the film’s scant moments of levity and injecting a healthy dose of charisma and emotion into the film. His character is easily the most nuanced in the whole film, and one of the main reasons watching the film again is a compelling prospect.
If you’ve seen any of Christopher Nolan’s films, especially those from Batman Begins onwards, you know what you’re going to get aesthetically, but there have been some noticeable changes behind-the-scenes that slightly alter its flavour. Most notably, the music is composed not by Nolan’s usual choices of Hans Zimmer or David Julyan, but by Ludwig Göransson of Black Panther and The Mandalorian fame. His score takes some inspiration from Zimmer but is noticeably more muted and techno-influenced, giving it slightly grungier and less operatic feel than a typical Nolan score. This change in musical tone is even reflected in the end credits, which play over an original rap song ‘The Plan’ by Travis Scott, that complements Göransson’s compositions beautifully.
The film’s editing, done by Noah Baumbach regular Jennifer Lame rather than Nolan’s usual Lee Smith, is tight and keeps up the tension in all of the right places, whilst the production design is grounded but intricate in much the same vein as Inception or Interstellar. In his third collaboration with Nolan, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is, for the most part, gorgeous and captures the peculiar action sequences in enthralling fashion. The only flaw here is the lighting in scenes set at night, which often threaten to make Washington almost invisible; it seems even the best cinematographers could use some lessons in photographing Black skin.
Tenet is a unique and often stunning film about the nature of time and fate, but it’s ultimately a little too smart for its own good. It’s a difficult film to penetrate even by Nolan’s standards, and though its second half ultimately brings it across the finish line, getting through its slog of a first will be an endurance test for those looking for something more immediately entertaining. It’s certainly far from Nolan’s worst film (I swear, The Dark Knight Rises only gets shoddier every time I watch it), but in comparison to most of his filmography, it is a disappointment. I don’t doubt that many of those willing to go back to cinemas and see Tenet will love it. However, for those still understandably hesitant to venture to the multiplex, I will simply say this: Tenet is not worth rushing out to see anyway.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10