What’s new, readers? Finally. After all this time, after the damn COVID pandemic, we can catch bullets and wait an hour for hot sauce in Tenet, the 2020 spy thriller written and directed by Christopher Nolan. I haven’t been so hyped up to see a movie since Avengers: Endgame over a year and a half ago. For months I had to work with the sparse plot details about a CIA agent known as the Protagonist (John David Washington) getting roped into a shadowy espionage organization called Tenet, where he wields the cryptic instrument of time inversion in a mission to avert the impending threat of World War III with the help of his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson). I wanted to watch it in theaters, but its release was delayed by a pesky little thing called COVID. Once it came to theaters, I still didn’t go because I wasn’t in the mood to sit for over two and a half hours in a room full of recycled air that may or may not be infected with the coronavirus, even if I had a mask protecting me, and it didn’t feel any safer to rent out a theater. The reviews subsequently poured in with some viewers loving the movie for being an entrancing and original masterpiece, and others hating it for being Nolan’s most incoherent and soulless offering yet. The strongly polarized reception is redolent of the reactions people had to Interstellar. By the way, that used to be Nolan’s lowest-rated picture on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 72 percent, until Tenet replaced it with a score of 70 percent—an indication of the difficulty people have had with unpacking the labyrinthine movie.
Now that I’ve seen Nolan’s latest flick on VOD, I can tell you I’m deep in the love camp. Shot in three continents and numerous countries, featuring spies and arms dealers who could have come straight out of 007, and bending the mind with its nonlinear take on time, Tenet is a brilliant sci-fi spin on James Bond. While it isn’t without its shortcomings, it dishes out everything Nolan fans want: an inventive premise, dazzling visuals, a superb cast, massive set pieces that hark back to the scale of Inception, a puzzlebox plot that is reminiscent of The Prestige, and gorgeous camera work by Dunkirk and Ad Astracinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. On top of it all, Tenet is Nolan’s funniest and most self-aware movie with the dry humor and the way it winks at viewers with homages to 007 and some of his own work. And it’s funny that catching bullets is part of the inversion science, since the first shot in Nolan’s second movie Memento is of Guy Pearce shooting Joe Pantoliano, with the shot itself playing backwards to show the bullet unfiring back into the gun. Nolan claimed he used this as a metaphor for the character attempting to go back in time and resolve the murder of his wife. Two decades later, this seed has blossomed into an entire story based on things happening in reverse. It makes me keen to know what other brain-breaking ideas are stewing in his head.
As a general principle, movies involving science-fiction, fantasy, superheroes, the paranormal, or any other genres outside the boundaries of grounded reality need to grip you deeply enough in their extraordinary journeys so that you don’t stop to ask questions, or if that happens, you don’t linger on those questions for very long. For Tenet, I’d say I stopped to ask questions forty percent of the time and lingered on them fifteen percent, which, honestly, is better than I was expecting. Admittedly, there were multiple times where my train of thought went like this: “Ah yes, this is happening because of that, and they’re going to… Oh, okay, so we’re moving in that direction because of this, I think? Now they’re doing this and I’m kind of understanding it. And then… WHAT THE HELL?!?!” *sound of my gray matter bursting into a thousand pieces* Whereas Inception is a movie that clicked together pretty easily for me ninety percent of the time on the first viewing, Tenet is a rapid-fire movie that allowed me very little time to breath and caused dozens of questions to pop up in my head while I did my best to process the narrative developments, character motivations, and inversion exposition. It feels as if Nolan is speaking directly to his audience when a character who is laying out time inversion ends up advising, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” That being said, it was much, much easier to grasp the film on the rewatch, since I already knew the general structure of its narrative and could dedicate my attention to the details I missed or forgot on the first viewing.
One of the similarities between Inception and Tenet is they both boast outstanding talent all over the place. Washington radiates charismatic wit as the closest thing we have yet to a Black 007. Pattinson gives off low-key Eames-from-Inception vibes; it’s good to see how much his career has evolved years after playing that sparkly and psychopathic vampire a decade ago. Kenneth Branagh goes from calmly menacing to deliciously hammy as Andrei Sator, a Russian oligarch who could easily be a Bond villain; Branagh also played a Russian baddie in the Chris Pine vehicle Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Elizabeth Debicki is so damn tall while serving up a spellbindingly raw performance as art appraiser and Sator’s estranged wife Katherine “Kat” Barton; although I wish Nolan didn’t design the character as such a damsel-in-distress, I actually think she’s the most strongly written female character in his filmography. Even the smallest roles are given extra presence with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who looks entirely different since I last saw him as Quicksilver/Pietro Maximoff in Avengers: Age of Ultron; Himesh Patel, the star of the 2019 Danny Boyle rock n’ roll comedy Yesterday; Clémence Poésy, AKA Fleur Delacour; Dimple Kapadia, a Bollywood star for whom Tenet is her first appearance in an American film; Martin Donovan, who played the guy Al Pacino unwittingly shoots in Nolan’s Insomnia; Fiona Dourif, the daughter of Brad Dourif, AKA Chucky and Wormtongue; and Michael Caine, because of course the lovely old man needs to pop up somewhere in Nolan’s movies. Hardcore fans will catch the cameo from Jeremy Theobald, the star of Nolan’s first movie Following.
Washington, who sounds so much like his father Denzel that it’s almost scary, was originally a professional football player. His shift into acting saw him depicting an NFL player on HBO’s Ballers, then starring in the Oscar-winning Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman. At this stage in his career, though, he’s not the kind of star who draws throngs of people to the movies. This is why he’s an especially interesting choice as the protagonist (yes, I had to do that). Normally, Nolan selects huge names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Matthew McConaughey to be the leading men. It’s no less significant that Tenet is the first Nolan picture to star a person of color. I know some people have said Washington is stilted and dull here, and while the Protagonist himself is a nothing role, I think Washington infuses it with tremendous charm. Nothing shows that more clearly than a scene where he brutally beats up a few thugs, then walks out and adjusts his suit all caj. The plot rushes along so quickly that it might be strenuous on the first viewing to notice the subtle intuition of his performance, something that’s easier to fully appreciate on a rewatch. Tenet should give a substantial boost to his career, and I’ll be keeping an eye for his upcoming projects, one of which will be a 2021 drama called Malcolm & Marie in which he’ll costar with the ever-glorious Zendaya.
To digress a little onto the Bond track, Twitter has been on a fancast campaign on behalf of Regé-Jean Paul from the Bridgerton series on Netflix. I haven’t seen Bridgerton, but judging from the memes, including the one where he rolls up his sleeves, he possesses sex appeal in spades. Whether it’s him, Michael B. Jordan, Lashana Lynch, et cetera—I recently chatted with someone about what it would be like to watch Henry Golding play the suave spy—I hope whoever replaces Daniel Craig is a POC. I’ve heard rumors about Tom Hardy taking up the role, and while I do think he’s chock full of drawing power, choosing to cast a nonwhite actor instead would be a giant step forward for representation in Hollywood.
I’m curious as to whether I’d feel differently if I saw the film in theaters and had to put up with the notorious muffled dialogue sans closed captioning. Numerous scenes involve characters talking through gas masks or oxygen masks, speaking over the radio, conversing beside thundering machinery or on a blaring sailboat as it zooms through the ocean, et cetera. We need to understand the dialogue too, what with all the exposition packed into a narrative that never stops moving. The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar also drew criticism for their own sound problems, and it’s grown to the point that Nolan’s sound mixing and his obsession with masks are memes. From what I’ve learned, he deliberately jacks up the noise to immerse us in his stories, and he essentially said it isn’t important for us to understand the dialogue and we should concentrate on the visuals instead. A strange thing to say for a guy who writes his movies to rely heavily on expositional dialogue.
As with many aspects of this espionage thriller, opinions vary drastically over Ludwig Göransson’s score. Some have come down on it for being a strident mess that contributes to the problematic sound design, while others applaud it for enriching the viewing experience with its cinematic tone. I fell into the second group after listening to the soundtrack when it first dropped months ago. It wasn’t what I initially expected, but I quickly came to enjoy the vigorous and pulsing quality of Göransson’s music. Being a fan of Hans Zimmer’s powerful and majestic orchestral pieces, I was dubious when the announcement was made about Nolan changing up composers, but now I’m quite pleased by the result. Like I said in my review of The Mandalorian: Season 2, Göransson is rising fast, having composed for Community, Black Panther, Creed, Creed II, the Death Wish reboot, Venom, Trolls World Tour, and The Mandalorian; produced Donald Glover’s musical career as Childish Gambino; and saw recognition in 2019 by winning two Grammies for Song and Record of the Year for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” and a Grammy and an Oscar for his Black Panther score.
Critics have found many elements of Tenet to tear down, and I do agree with them on one problem—Nolan’s mishandling of female characters. They often bear misery and death to drive the arcs of male characters in his movies, with fridged wives playing roles in Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar. There’s also the murdered girl in Insomnia and Murph longingly waiting for her dad in Interstellar. In Tenet, Kat does have an intriguing emotional arc, but most of the time she endures abuse at the hands of her husband, some of which is physical. It doesn’t matter if the camera cuts away from the actual hitting, because the hitting itself is still happening and making my stomach twist on itself. It feels like Nolan wanted to show us the hatefulness of Sator and the poisoned state of his marriage, and he was too lazy to come up with anything better than physical abuse, something that Hollywood loves depicting against women. I would have preferred Nolan focusing on the psychological and emotional strains between Kat and Sator, which would take the cringiness out of the marriage and flesh out their abusive relationship. At least Debicki makes the most out of her material, emanating a contemptuous air that clarifies just how much her character thinks of Sator as a sack of moldy potatoes. Debicki has been making quite the name for herself since her breakthrough performance in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Nolan tends to reuse actors from previous movies for his future projects, so if he calls back anybody from Tenet, my pick would be Debicki. Further than that, if Nolan ever does a movie starring a woman, he needs to cast her in the lead role. She’s the kind of actor whom I could watch scroll through her phone or read a book, and I’d be absolutely fascinated.
No doubt it about it, this movie is the epitome of Nolan. His strengths are at full power, but so are some of his weaknesses. The characters are one-dimensional, patches of dialogue are awkwardly written and delivered, emotion is devoid from much of the story (that is, until a reveal in the denouement injects some poignance into the narrative), a woman suffers abuse and torment, and the plot more often than not presses you to just go along with it rather than try to comprehend every detail. The opinion that critics of Tenet often share is that a movie is bad if you can’t understand it on the first watch. Personally, I view Nolan’s work as puzzles that can be intellectually satisfying to solve, even if the first try isn’t a complete success. More than that, I want to go at his puzzles eagerly and repeatedly, and I want to feel the thrill of picking up on all the pieces that were hidden out in the open. That’s the way I went at The Prestige, and it was an incredibly fun time. So if you typically find Nolan to have his head far up his own ass, Tenet probably won’t change your opinion. On the other hand, if you love his ambitious creations, you’ll most likely eat up everything about his latest flick.
In regard to Nolan himself, he’s second to none in my opinion. He’s the only director whose work I’d be willing to watch without any trailers, plot details, or even a name. Just tell me it’s a film of his and I will gladly go into it completely cold. He also occupies a unique space as a brand-name filmmaker who can shoot wildly original and visually electric creations without studio notes or budget constraints. That’s why I sympathize with his passionate censure of Warner Bros. Granted, decrying HBO Max as “the worst streaming service” might be a stretch, but I think he’s coming from a place of sincere concern for the theaters that have been crippled by the pandemic. It’s why he fought so hard against the brass at Warner Bros. to give Tenet a theatrical release in September instead of delaying it for a fourth time or dropping it on VOD, believing it would be the movie to rescue the cinema. As much I consider Nolan to be a genius, I can acknowledge the hubristic idealism in such a goal, and as we all know, Tenet wasn’t a smash hit in theaters, grossing only $361 million on a $200 million budget and depriving Warner Bros. of a projected $100 million. I’m sure they lost even more than that; on top of the announced budget, studios spend approximately the same amount on the ad campaign, thereby doubling the budget. Even then, Tenet claimed the spot for the fourth-highest grossing movie of 2020, and I’m certain it’s been reaping profits on VOD. Nevertheless, studios might be leery going forwards when it comes to spending mountains of moolah in the wake of a blockbuster like Tenet flopping with asterisks attached. That would be a shame, since we need filmmakers like Nolan to be able to execute their vision at a theater-level scope.
To end this review, I’ll say that I came away immediately after the first viewing feeling like I grasped the core of Tenet, while some of the minutiae had to be untangled, in my head, on the Internet, and on the rewatch. While the movie suffers from a few drawbacks, Nolan is truly welcoming the “feel it” sentiment here and I’m delighting in it, even if I should be able to cognize more of the story.
All my love and prayers go to you, readers. Stay healthy and stay strong.
Windup score: 97/100