Even from watching the trailers, nobody could really tell what Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was all about. We all at least knew it was going to be unlike most action films, and that it involved some form of bending time. But what I could not have foreseen is how Tenet is the best-ever James Bond movie not starring James Bond. No Time to Die, the gauntlet has been thrown.
We begin with an attack on a Russian opera house thwarted by The Protagonist (John David Washington). He only receives this moniker after that mission, which was partially a test. He is brought into a secret society attempting to, as they put it, prevent something worse than World War 3. We never learn The Protagonist’s real name. Usually these kinds of minimalist naming conventions irritate me, but here, there’s a reason for it. Those in charge of this grander mission have to have ways to keep things straight in their minds, and knowing who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy is vitally important when some people have the ability to operate in reverse while everyone else is moving forward.
In this world, linear entropy and natural forward momentum can be reversed. I won’t tell you why, as that would totally spoil the fun. But because this phenomenon exists within a Chris Nolan movie, there are of course villains who use it to their own heinous ends.
To help combat these villains, enter Robert Pattinson as Neil. Furthering the Bond theme, Neil is a kind of Q on steroids. He’s there as a storytelling device to explain some of the concepts, sure, but he’s also the gadgets and ideas guy. From the moment they meet, Washington and Pattinson have great chemistry as action partners. They’re both incredibly suave and naturally funny, but they’re really just being themselves. They’re not trying to impress anyone, they just really are that cool. That’s why I saw Washington as Bond in this; he could carry every note those movies throw at an actor. Some people are just born charming.
Mainly, though, this movie doesn’t exist to charm. It exists to dazzle, with fresh ideas, crackling visual storytelling, and stunning setups and payoffs.
Like Inception, it attempts to have its cake and eat it, too, in an emotional sense. But Tenet is definitely more successful at this. Because Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Sator — the movie’s biggest baddie — is a fiery Russian oligarch who often wears his heart on his sleeve, it makes sense why his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), features so prominently. I did feel a bit let down that such a fantastic actor as Debicki (please watch Widows) is cast almost exclusively as a damsel in distress here, but I did actually feel for her character quite a lot, which, as much as I love Inception, is more than I can say for the Mal storyline.
Tenet is not without its share of flaws, but I suspect that I’ll probably have less qualms with it than many moviegoers due to its dense plot. That’s not to say I think I understand it all better than anyone: my issues with the film are mostly about execution.
Like most of Nolan’s films now, he’s got the volume on the music and sound effects turned up to infinity. This is fine for a wordless action scene or a tense establishing shot, but there were a few times where a character was clearly saying something important and I simply could not hear the words. I don’t know why Nolan insists on making his films this way, but as much as I love his work, that part is starting to get unforgivably irritating.
And then toward the final action sequence, there is a light speed exposition dump which is supposed to propel us into said sequence. But it all happened so fast that I definitely lost the thread for a moment. For a high-concept film which I felt did such a marvelous job of showing its rules and ideas rather than telling them through at least 80% of its runtime, that momentary clunkiness really stuck out.
But these are fairly minor complaints in the grand scheme of things for me. There is so much to gawk at here, in the best way. It’s smart spectacle on the grandest scale possible. And it might have the best car chase in cinematic history. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, watch it for yourself.
However, obviously, you should make informed choices with your health. This pandemic isn’t over. I speak as someone who has had Covid-19 and gotten through it — it is not fun and you should take all the precautions you feel are necessary and then some. If you are a cinephile like me, Tenet is an absolute blast to see in a safe and clean theater. I am grateful that I had that experience. If it’s something you feel you can wait to watch at home, or if you feel that no movie theater visits are worth it right now, wait. It will still be a very rewarding experience, and likely a safer one. And likely a quieter one, too. I had forgotten how loud the multiplexes like to crank up the sound these days.
2hr, 30min; Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language.
’Tenet’ is now playing in early access screenings in select cities where theaters are open in the US. It will expand weekly starting September 3.