Note: No spoilers here.
“You have to start looking at the world in a new way.”
Strap in your mind for a wild ride that culminates filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s film history in the new international espionage thriller Tenet. The action frenzy challenges audiences’ intellect, logic, and open-mindedness. Nolan and his crew create the first major studio film released during the COVID-19 pandemic as a joint U.S./British production.
John David Washington stars as the Protagonist, a CIA agent with Robert Pattinson as Neil, his “handler.” Their efforts to stop antagonist Andrei Sator, a ruthless businessman whose mysterious and sudden rise to power puts him in a unique position. Elizabeth Debicki stars as Kat, a talented art expert and Sator’s wife.
This quality cast really anchors realism as filmmakers minimize the special effects and maximize the real-world environments …the IMAX release is basically a dare to skeptics who would question the film’s authenticity and purpose while rewarding the audience with rich cinema that will be treasured for generations.
Washington exudes and displays the experience necessary for a believable hero that can even engage such a large challenge. In a world where a “high-vis vest and clipboard” can get him in anywhere in a modern spy world, Washington’s shining moment is a visceral fight scenario that initially seems impossible to win that ends with a priceless reaction.
Pattinson provides some charm and comic relief as Neil in quick doses (e.g. tells detained guards not to let their food grow cold) as well as practical advice. He spouts nuggets like “What is happening happened” and “You’re inverted; the world is not” are memorable and practical – a perfect perspective for audiences.
Branaugh’s baddie strikes deep with words, especially when Sator first meets the Protagonist. His relentless drive to succeed is well supported in the filmmaking techniques in a key sequence full of menace where the musical score totally drops out and audiences hang on every word. Sator’s first appearance comes in an exterior sequence with the bright sun behind him so audiences cannot see his face yet. He increasingly elevates his game, which separates him from Kat in this new “life that [she] no longer value[s].”
Debicki’s talents elevate Kat into a character full of prowess even though she’s victimized. She is easily bolstered with filmmaking techniques like a sweeping balcony shot on a cliff at a key meeting. Her “can’t fight/just beg” mantra provides yet another emotional connection to the audience as they hope for her happiness in a seemingly hopeless situation.
The stellar supporting cast also includes arms dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia), military commander Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), “fixer” Mahir (Himesh Patel), scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy), the Protagonist’s boss Victor (Martin Donovan), and British Intelligence officer Sir Michael Crosby (Michael Caine). Wheeler (Fiona Dourif) assists the Protagonist as well while henchman Quinton (Yuri Kolokolnikov) works against.
Some serious car chases, incredible boating, and epic warfare. The incredible stunt work, especially in reverse fighting techniques, coupled with Nolan’s third partnership with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s strong visuals creates a realistic, high concept experience with only 280 special effects shots – an incredible feat in modern cinema.
Nolan’s screenplay gives the audience plenty of escapism, logic, and intellectual challenges (“try to keep up”). Algorithms, backward-moving entropy, non-linear thinking, paradoxes, reverse exits, a “temporal pincer movement,” and turnstiles populate an engaging plot, but demands some audience effort. Even the simple title digs deep as a Latin palindrome puzzle with a rich history (it’s a fun Google) that’s also a key component in the plot.
This time inversion phenomenon “transcends national interest” as character encounter hair raising physical states. These special states create special situations, but not something so rattling that the characters are walking into scenarios where they have to be prepared for anything with Sator holding all the knowledge.
“This reversing the flow of time, doesn’t us being here now, mean it never happened?” says The Protagonist. I questioned a bit of the film’s logic. For example, why would a henchman work for Sator? Is money their only motivation? Shouldn’t more random events shake things up? For example, I thought a big shakeup was coming when some important team members questioned their authorities. “Maybe we won’t like what happens,” they say, but an authority’s standard “you’re on a need-to-know” basis quells this potential rift.
These questions weren’t enough to detract from the satisfying twists, subtle connections, and incredible events. A film with impressive closure as well with characters that weave Nolan’s web so well. Instinct goes a long way here because it provides that emotional connection to the audience and puts them into the Protagonist’s shoes. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” says one character. The characters often present their plan before audiences can formulate their own yet no one watching is left behind due to a lack of information.
Ludwig Göransson takes over in the music department as Hans Zimmer opted out after a great run of Nolan’s films beginning with The Prestige. Travis Scott performs and writes “The Plan” song with Wonda Gurl and Göransson, which starts the ending credits.
Filmed in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Tenet comes highly recommended (***1/2 out of four stars) and is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references, and brief strong language. Tenet was shot in 70 mm and IMAX and is also being played in 35 mm. It was postponed many times from its original July 17 release date. Tenet’s cinematic world has the potential for more that becomes hopefully becomes a reality soon (definitely some prequels).