Once again doing triple duty as writer, producer and director Christopher Nolan had fought teeth and nails to keep his high concept, time-bending spy flick to arrive as close to it’s original intended release date as possible to a desperate and empty cinematic landscape. While everyone else’s film has been delayed a year. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” fights the good fight to be another bold, beautiful, grandiose big screen spectacle. He once again relies on his own tropes of impeccable production design, well thought out action scenes, a Rubik’s Cube of a screenplay and a big overbearing driving score and sound mixing. He presents us with another cerebral experience that audiences have come to expect from his films. That is where the problem lies…in the fact that it’s a Christopher Nolan film. You seen one Nolan film then you’ve seen the next one. The only difference is in the concept. “Tenet” plays like a James Bond movie crossed with elements from Nolan’s previous films, from “Memento” to “Inception” to even a bit of “Dunkirk”. Starring Oscar nominated John David Washington (that’s right Denzel’s boy), who gets a great opportunity here in his first action role and co stars Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh. The movie is a real mixed bag and my review dives into it all, so please give it a read. But ultimately let’s just say that this is one of the times where Nolan feels more in love with his own creation then most people will be walking out.
As theaters are starting to slowly open around the world, here on Maui two out of our three theaters has opened up. So naturally as soon as we got the green light it was ok to head to the multiplex. I jumped at the chance to see what was one of the years most talked about and anticipated movies.
After seeing numerous delays caused by the global pandemic, Warner Bros. studios questioned whether Christopher Nolan’s newest film “Tenet” should be released at a time when all other studios are pushing back their releases until next year. Once again doing triple duty as writer, producer and director Christopher Nolan had fought teeth and nails to keep his high concept, time-bending spy flick to arrive as close to it’s original intended release date as possible to a desperate and empty cinematic landscape (empty it was as I was the only one in attendance). Nolan was eager to stick to the date in order to show the world he can still be the grandiose filmmaker that he is and create a jaw dropping, IMAX-level experience so vast and complex it’ll demand multiple viewings.
Christopher Nolan movies are always something to celebrate as your always going to get an original concept since a good portion of his films are cooked up from his creative and imaginative mind. Much like Christopher Nolan’s own creation “Inception”. His film “Tenet” is another bold, beautiful, grandiose big screen spectacle. Nolan once again relies on the Christopher Nolan tropes of impeccable production design, well thought out action scenes, a Rubik’s Cube of a screenplay and a big overbearing driving score that loves to go “BRRRAAAAMMMMM!!!!!”; courtesy of composer Ludwig Goransson’s, Hans Zimmer-esque score.
Despite hitting all the check marks in the Nolan playbook, he still manages to seize control of the medium and presents us with another cerebral experience that audiences have come to expect from his films. That’s where the problem lies…in the fact that it’s a Christopher Nolan film. You seen one Nolan film then you’ve seen the next one. The only difference is in the concept. “Tenet” plays like a James Bond movie crossed with elements from Nolan’s previous films from “Memento” to “Inception” to even a bit of “Dunkirk”.
All of the technical elements are here and his ideas are more ambitious than what he presented us a decade ago with “Inception”. But “Tenet” has a story that is muddled, frustrating as hell and has a lot to take in. I shook my head several times, just to clear the loose pieces and get a handle on what was going on. Nolan’s original story feels like something that only he can fully understand.
“Tenet” revolves around the concept of inversion or time reversal, instead of regular time travel. But it’s all kept within the “Back to the Future” rule, that you’ll get into big trouble if you interact with yourself along the timeline. This means time can move in reverse, so rather than cause and effect, it’s effect and then cause. And the ability to reverse entropy (which is a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system’s disorder, that is a property of the system’s state, and that varies directly with any reversible change in heat in the system and inversely with the temperature of the system) is what causes the “time inversion.” When you are inverted, you are moving backwards in time. Where from your perception, you are moving as normal, while the rest of the world is moving in reverse.
Ok maybe I’ll just stop there in attempting to explain the physics of “Tenet”. However Nolan attempts to present an explanation in one of a handful of scenes. He explains the physics through a scientist played by Clemence Posey in a fascinating sequence showing that time can be inverted and events from the future can be changed. Such as bullets return to guns from which they’ve been fired. Cars race in reverse, humans walk backwards and wounds can disappear. Like our current state, our characters do a lot of mask wearing because when you experience time inversion, you have to wear a special mask because your system is so screwed up, that “normal” air will do you in.
Oscar nominated star John David Washington is a secret agent who goes by the name The Protagonist. His mission, should he choose to accept it, will be to track down the maniacal Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, “Murder On The Orient Express), who is using time inversion to start World War III and assemble a weapon that will destroy the world. While we all may know John David Washington (son of Hollywood legend Denzel Washington), from the HBO comedy-drama “Ballers” or from his role as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning crime drama “Blackkklansman”.
While this is a great opportunity for John David Washington to be the lead in future action films. He plays his role as the protagonist as cool and confident, but while his performance isn’t anything career defining, he shows great potential for future films of this caliber. His film career is still short but impressive, especially considering that no less than five years ago, John David was nowhere near a film set and instead, he was playing in the NFL with the St Louis Rams. Co star Robert Pattinson is perfectly cast as the well dressed boyishly handsome rogue agent Neil, while Shakespeare actor Kenneth Branagh chews the scenery and plays evil like a Bond villain. Typically always a screen presence Elizabeth Debicki, who was impressive in “Widows”, makes no impact here.
Like Nolan’s other films, the sound mix is aggressive and Nolan seems more invested in the soundtrack’s slamming sound mixing and overbearing score than making an effective story. It just may be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen and so much so that the opening action scene, where John David Washington storms an opera house under siege, it feels like an assault. The opening floors you with its breadth and range, while cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera zips you between attendees, around armed soldiers, and through an intense firefight so fast you’ll get whiplash.
This is where Christopher Nolan doesn’t get enough credit, in the way Nolan stages elaborate action sequences. I’d certainly rank him as one of the best action filmmakers. In his most blistering sequence Nolan and his team construct a speeding car chase that is considerably more than just that. Rarely has a car chase had such monumental consequences depending on its outcome. Nolan also has great fun with elaborate set pieces in which buildings explode, then become whole again, then implode. The physical combat in “Tenet” is fast and mirrors some of the gravity-defying qualities of “Inception”, but this time on a more brutal level with more physical hand to hand fight sequences. Or his biggest stunt yet as a rumble at an Oslo airport storage facility that revolves into a real runaway jumbo jet colliding into a building.
It’s hard to not say that it’s noticeable Nolan likes to put the mechanics ahead of anything else. As with all of his films, he steadfastly demands that “Tenet” be seen in theaters in the biggest way imaginable, preferably to be viewed in IMAX. Take the idea of inversion out of “Tenet” and there’s a passable Roger Moore-era James Bond picture to enjoy. It’s a shiny and beautiful creation, but if one doesn’t buy into the central concept, there’s nothing here beyond a gorgeous looking movie and heaps of bloated exposition in a two and half hour picture.
Sure we all saw Tom Cruise pull off his ultimate stunt by going to a crowded theater in London to see “Tenet”. But honestly this mixed bag isn’t worth jumping back into theaters so soon. Just wait for it’s 4K Blu Ray or to stream it on one of the premiere services. This is not one of Nolan’s best, as his best work still lies in “Dunkirk”, “Inception” and “The Dark Knight” (in that order). Christopher Nolan is an artist, clear and simple and it’s something that I won’t deny. But this is one of the times where Nolan feels more in love with his own creation then most people will be walking out.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)