Don’t try to understand it. Feel it. Delayed three times, Christopher Nolan’s mysterious spy movie, Tenet, is one of the most important cinematic events of the year, and not just because it’s a Christopher Nolan movie. Adamant that the movie had to be seen on the big screen, Nolan’s decision to put his foot down and entice people back to cinemas with this big event blockbuster is somewhat questionable under current circumstances, but purely from an entertainment point of view, Tenet has clearly been designed for the biggest screen possible.
Centered on John David Washington’s unnamed Protagonist, Tenet follows the enigmatic secret agent as he works his way through the dizzyingly convoluted plot in order to prevent a shady organization from using time manipulation technology and ultimately cause an event that’s somehow even worse than World War III. The less you know about Tenet going in, the better, and you’ll likely need to do some extra reading afterward anyway, as, like most of Nolan’s movies, much of the enjoyment comes from watching the experience unfold with as little prior knowledge as possible.
Full of paradoxes and palindromes, Tenet gradually unfurls, with puzzle pieces slowly slotting into place right up until the final scene. A peculiar beast, Tenet is easy to understand, but also difficult to fully grasp, as you quickly become swept up in the explosive set pieces and wildly inventive choreography as Nolan orchestrates and manipulates time on a whim like some cinematic conductor. Rather aptly, Tenet will likely improve with hindsight, with shards of this serpentine spy story merging with the whole on repeat viewings. But, don’t concern yourself so much with that, instead just strap yourself in, step through the turnstile, and allow yourself to be pushed, pulled, and turned upside down and inside out.
Guiding you through the labyrinth is John David Washington who brings an endearing, scrappy tenacity to the lead role, while Robert Pattinson oozes a lanky charm as his quintessentially British ally. Injecting as much emotion as she can into her really rather thankless role is the exceptionally talented Elizabeth Debicki as the put-upon Kat, wife and prisoner of Kenneth Branagh’s scenery chewing Russian villain, Andrei Sator. Debicki manages to bring a slender grace to the role, while Branagh clearly relishes his as the pulpy, cookie-cutter bad guy.
Like a lot of Nolan’s movies, the characters are thinly drawn, mostly just a group of cool guys being cool, but Tenet isn’t supposed to be a character study. No, Tenet is all about the concept, with the characters simply there to grab hold and pull us through the experience.
Not as tight and meticulous as Inception, nor as emotionally charged as Dunkirk, Tenet is likely to be one of Nolan’s more divisive movies. But, even when he’s not at his strongest, Nolan’s ability to craft original, insular blockbusters that cut through both hardcore cinephiles and more casual movie fans remains unmatched.
The tangled plotting is likely to leave some audience members in the dust, but fully understanding Tenet is only a small part of the enjoyment when it comes to this pulsing, preposterous, powerful blockbuster. Feel it. Don’t try to understand it.
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