Tenet – Review: A Return to the Spectacular

Christopher Nolan is obsessed with time, with humanity’s attempts to master it, and how simple shifts in perspective can subvert the very fabric of reality. In Tenet, Nolan attempts to achieve the near-impossible – create a smart, stylish spy film with a fantastical premise and naturalistic storytelling. He mostly succeeds.

The decision by WB to have their first major foray back into the theaters be Tenet, a Christopher Nolan “event” that was designed to be compulsively rewatchable, is the film’s central claim to greatness. All of the callbacks, the sly asides and meaningful dialogue all build up to make Tenet something that demands to be carefully rewatched.

That doesn’t mean that the event film doesn’t work on a purely bombastic level as a summer action flick. While none of the set pieces reach the sheer mind-bending scale or innovation of Inception, there are several scenes and moments that were genuinely jaw-dropping. The auteur has mastered the art of blending scale, science, and philosophical pretension.

While the action is not as expansive as I wanted or expected, it’s simply fantastic. The intensive work that Nolan’s put into the stunts and set design is a tribute not just to his genius, but to his overall appreciation of genre.

The score is one of the technical standouts of the movie. Thunderous, compelling, and captivating at all times. The score elevates the film in several places, effortlessly weaving musical complexity into human drama. I suspect this is the area in which Tenet will get the most awards contention.

Behind the Scenes | Christopher Nolan and John David Washington

It’s important to mention that the seriousness with which Nolan treats his subject is not only a sign of his pretension or commitment to the art form, but absolutely essential to the type of story he’s trying to tell. The James Bond comparisons are apt but think Skyfall, not Thunderball. The actions of the characters, the tension, and weight of the story require seriousness and would be wholly underserved by some faux witty “Oh isn’t this just ridiculous? Don’t worry, I see it too.” Asides meant to placate not to inform.

Tenet is meant to be experienced before it’s analyzed. Going into this movie with a need to explain everything on the granular level on the first viewing will lead to critical oversights and eventual frustration with how quickly everything moves. I’d argue that some of the more insipid criticisms stem precisely from such minimal engagement.

Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.

Barbara, played by Clémence Poésy

The main acting standouts from the film were John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh. Washington owns the role of ‘The Protagonist’, exuding swagger, charisma, and sex appeal. If there was an American James Bond, he’d be the front-runner. Playing the role of the lead with a simmering intensity that only spills over into the real world when required. Washington’s on-screen chemistry with Robert Pattinson’s Neil elevated the whole experience. I would watch several Tenet sequels with the duo going on various capers (which would make up for the lack of a sequel to the criminally underrated The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). He’s a bona fide star who’s guaranteed to be just as huge as his father.

The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Neil (Robert Pattinson) | Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Branagh is the second standout. It’s no great surprise to note that one of the best actors of our current age turns in a fine performance, but it’s the simple truth. Branagh’s Sator is absolutely terrifying as the antagonist. He plays his character mostly straight, with only a few moments of affected tenderness to add weight to his cruelty and depravity. He menaces the screen and his buttoned-up fierceness adds an effective counterweight to John David Washington’s panache. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Elizabeth Debicki’s stunning performance as Kat, showing again why she’s one of the upcoming actresses to watch. Debicki imbues an elevated damsel-in-distress role with raw emotion and a satisfying character arc. She shows anger, sadness, despair and hope with equal grace.

Nolan conceives of his characters as stereotypes — as ideals of the types of characters that inhabit all spy movies. Debonair lead, comedic friend, menacing Russian, devastating and vengeful damsel — all of these are ripped straight from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The brilliance of a filmmaker like Nolan is in giving these characters fully orbed being while playing within their stereotype. The archetypes feel natural. 

Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) | Courtesy of Warner Bros.

We needed this. We need these type of “pop-smart” movies to litter the blockbuster landscape again, and Nolan seems to be the one most likely to make that happen. At the moment Nolan seems to be the only filmmaker that audiences trust to combine elevated art with the summer cinema experience, and until someone else pops up to do that job we need him.

Tenet is epic, stylish, intelligent, and fun. ★★★★☆

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