Director Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception does not need an introduction, same as this film’s scattered release date, so let us begin by saying that Tenet is easily one of the most anticipated films of the year. Every Nolan film comes with high expectations, but given how it is being posed as a film that “can save movie theatres” and is also one of the few big releases this year, there’s more on its plate than usual. But despite that and me being a gigantic fan of his, I always go into a film with moderate expectations and judge it on its own merits. On that front, Tenet is another impressive addition to his filmography, but as a fan I felt that it did not quite live up to his standards.
After a test mission, a CIA agent known as “The Protagonist” (John David Washington) is tasked with pursuing a Russian arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who is deemed to be the key to a possible future global conflict, with his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) being a way of getting to him. Alongside his assigned partner Neil (Robert Pattinson), he works with a newly gained ability to see time backwards, one that becomes more imperative to the situation.
The brief description I gave will not prepare you for how incredibly complicated and puzzling the narrative is, yet like a good puzzle it becomes clearer the longer it goes on, especially once the final hour rolls around. I had no trouble following this film, but the entire thing is very much an information overload, so as a result there were details that slipped past me and will slip past other viewers, though it makes sense the more you think about it. There are solid themes to the story as well, such as duty vs personal desire and the negative consequences of trying to change the path of time.
Character-wise, whilst The Protagonist and Neil are likeable and easy to root for, the story prevents them from getting strong character arcs or having more of a personality by having them acting as pieces to move it forward. Neither has any personal stakes in the mission either, though I will admit that towards the end there is a reveal that does add dimension and emotion to their characters. Both Washington and Pattinson are good together and individually, but their characters and performances are shown up by Debicki as Kat and Branagh as Sator.
Kat is another example of Nolan proving to the naysayers that he can write an interesting female character (and has maybe the best response to the “fridging” criticism as well), as she has not only a personal stake within the narrative but is also quite sympathetic despite being somewhat of a femme fatale. Debicki brings emotional vulnerability, yet also projects an underlying strength and desire to be rid of her husband. The film works better when one takes Kat as the true main character of the story. Whilst Sator is not as complex as Nolan’s prior antagonists, he is still chilling, intimidating, and scary, with an interesting and disturbingly realistic motivation. Branagh really digs into this role and makes him not feel like a caricature. The storyline featuring these two is the most satisfying and engaging overall and it was what kept me invested.
Technically, one big problem is the weak sound mixing where the dialogue is muffled as a result. This was not much of an issue for me in Nolan’s prior films, but here it is a big distraction, because the amount of dialogue means that at least some of it in a lot of important scenes is inaudible. The editing is also inconsistent, as after the incredibly well-done opening action scene and before Kat is introduced, the editing is strangely jumpy. The film cuts from one location to the next rather jarringly without letting the audience breathe. But afterwards the pacing also drags on occasion, as whilst nothing could be cut, in a couple of areas it loses momentum and starts to feel very slow.
But whilst those technical issues get in the way, the direction is generally intense and engaging. The cinematography nails that blend between gritty realism and grand spectacle, with the action scenes being some of the most creative I have seen in a while. Like Inception or Interstellar, the special effects look totally believable and enhance the film rather than detract from it. The entire film feels chaotic and nerve wracking, often in a good way, but it does not quite have the heart that almost every single Nolan film contains. People try and argue that his films are emotionally cold, which is untrue, but this is admittedly the one time they might be correct, as Tenet does rarely feature a moment of emotional warmth. It has some, don’t get me wrong, but not quite enough.
Tenet is disappointingly flawed and might be Nolan’s weakest film overall (the reception of his films always fluctuate over time though), but despite that it still manages to be worthwhile. If you are up to have an experience that is equal parts gripping and confounding, then go ahead and watch it either at the cinema or at home.