Leaving the busiest screening I had been in since cinemas reopened, I could not shake the feeling of total awe. For 150 spellbinding minutes, Christopher Nolan earned my undivided attention, encouraged my active participation in the deliriously enigmatic plot presented in front of me, and excited me with the power of cinema in ways I had not experienced for some time. As I gradually recovered from my case of lockjaw having spent much of the last hour with it entirely agape, I dove backwards into understanding Tenet, unlocking all of its reverse mysteries, and pondering the implications of the mystifying, time-bending journeys that had just begun and ended simultaneously. Confused yet? You might be. That is the beauty of Tenet.
The palindromic nature of Tenet’s plotting leaves the impossible challenge of writing a brief on what exactly Tenet is about. Simply calling it a spy’s mission to save the world does not do it justice. Along the way, our unnamed spy, only referred to as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is sent globetrotting forwards and backwards through time in an adventure that requires the calmness of a man like Washington’s combined with the ferocity of his actions. Neil (Robert Pattinson) arrives on scene to be The Protagonist’s fixer, helping him along the way and funding whatever items deemed necessary for his missions while getting his hands dirty himself. Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh’s irredeemably awful Sator, the Russian oligarch to blame for the time-bent shenanigans, spends his days tormenting his charming wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), by holding her hostage with the use of their son. All of this adds up to a game of international espionage of which James Bond wishes he were capable.
Tenet is packed to the brim, full of Nolan tropes ramped up to the Nth degree. It feels as though Nolan himself has come full circle with it, delivering a film that is a combination of his dream-hopping Bond-a-thon, Inception, with the mind-melting told out of time, Memento. His penchant for expository dialogue remains, and while it may prove irksome for many, when the plot is as joyously complex as this one, sometimes exposition is just what we need to ground us in whichever – or whenever – reality we are in. It helps, too, that all his cast are completely on board.
Pattinson relishes his dialogue scenes with Washington, delivering them with the “I know something you don’t know” confidence of man having the time of his life. Conversations with Priya (Dimple Kapadia) are a stream of exposition dumps, but the chemistry she shares with Washington during these tête-à-têtes is palpable. You hang onto every word delivered, something that will pay off at the end of Act II as these characters confront each other regarding something that has yet to happen for one of them but has just occurred for the other. Debicki’s Kat is as close as Nolan has come to writing a damsel-in-distress, but Debicki’s performance elevates her beyond just that, by imbuing her character with a dark streak suggesting she would do the unthinkable if she were forced to. Branagh is clearly enjoying chewing the scenery in an almost Russian accent, too, with his character’s knack for being one step ahead of his opponent at every turn.
Every character interacts with and acts on the instruction of Tenet’s Protagonist in the very literal sense. To play a character who is so softly-spoken, combined with a knack for kitchen utensil violence, John David Washington was the perfect man for the job. Having had a breakout year in 2018, Washington takes aim at being a blockbuster leading man and passes with flying colours. The Protagonist is a committed worker willing to eat a cyanide pill in lieu of giving up valuable information, but Washington’s natural charisma warms us to him once he is finally unmasked after the awe-inspiring opening opera house sequence. Whether with his bromance with Neil, his desire to protect Kat, or his cojones for saying he has not “yet” slept with Sator’s wife, you want The Protagonist to succeed. When faced with the mind-boggling concept of inversion, he takes it on the chin and rides with it whether he understands it or not. His comprehension of the task at hand is not what matters, saving the world by any means necessary does.
Prior to Tenet’s release, Nolan and his production team could not stop heaping praise on Washington for his commitment to the role in every facet, particularly with the film’s abundance of action sequences. To reveal exactly how much Washington has to do throughout would ruin some of the wonderful action choreography ahead of you, but from his very first scene his commitment is there for all to see. Washington, for instance, rivals Tom Cruise for his cinematically appealing running style. I cannot specify what made it so satisfying for me, but Washington’s sprint has a genuine sense of urgency about it; he isn’t running to look good on camera, he’s running because the world depends on it. Washington is a fabulous physical actor, as shown in the film’s many forwards vs backwards action sequences where he had to learn choreography and reverse choreography ready for it all to be stitched together in the editing bay. Truly, Washington is a phenomenal lead to guide us through Tenet’s temporal warfare.
Conceptually, Tenet is Christopher Nolan at his most ambitious. What I can talk about here without spoiling the film is limited, but I urge those of you going into it to engage with the ideas and images presented in front of you. Tenet is not a film that has a scene that will explain it all for you, instead there are explanations dotted throughout the film that explain various aspects of the film. Something explained in the film’s first act will help your understanding of its third, while something revealed in its second act may well answer that question you had after the film’s first ten minutes. Colour, too, plays an important role in understanding who is doing what and when with its recurring motif of red and blue, colours no doubt chosen to encourage viewers to think in a different dimension than they’re used to, harkening back to the 3D glasses of cinema’s past. All of that said, Clémence Poésy’s mysterious scientist explains it best: “don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” And boy, do you feel it.
The film’s thunderous soundtrack combined with the viscerally creative action on screen will leave you breathless. Tenet guides you as far as it can with its hand firmly clasped around yours, but there will come a point when Tenet launches you into the film’s second half with a stunning highway heist sequence. This is the tipping point into Tenet’s inverted insanity that refuses to let up until the film’s final moments. Here, the choreography, cinematography, score, and editing are all working in symphony to amaze and astound. I lost track of the amount of times I wondered “how the hell did they do that?”, but the film operates at such a breakneck pace that you don’t get a chance to wonder how, before you’re presented with even more impossible imagery. The final hour, an all-out war to stop the end of the world with all kinds of temporally challenged soldiers is in the conversation of being the most inventive battle scenes ever put to film. Action occurring forwards and backwards, sometimes simultaneously, is a thrill absolutely impossible to quantify. Tenet is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement from one of the finest directors working today, and I am uncertain as to when we might see something like this ever again.
The early response to the film confirms that Tenet is going to be Nolan’s most divisive films yet. It is complex, there is an endless stream of exposition to chew through, and it is so visually arresting it may well need a second or third viewing to truly access it. That said, Tenet is one of the most enthralling cinematic experiences I have had for years. Its action scenes are unparalleled for their excitement and creativity, Washington, Pattinson, and Debicki are all as brilliant as each other, and its story is so complex and blisteringly challenging that it is sure to be discussed for years. Watch Tenet, marvel at its inner machinations, and watch it again, armed with the knowledge gained from your first go round. Tenet is utterly breathtaking.
Please note: Rhys saw Tenet at a cinema in the UK.