‘Tenet’- Film Review: Christopher Nolan’s Most Ambitious and Complex Sci-Fi Yet

For a lot of us, we’ve missed the feeling of sitting in the theater to watch a huge blockbuster to sink our teeth into. In a joking manner, we all figured writer/director mastermind Christopher Nolan would save this year with his most anticipated film Tenet to bring everyone back to the theater and be thrilled with another original concept from him that will have many questions in the process.

What’s the Story: Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, The Protagonist (John David Washington) journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.

Let it be clear I am a massive fan of Christopher Nolan, as he’s my second favorite director of all-time. He has only made ten movies before this, but he has never let me down with what I’ve seen from his career. Just know you shouldn’t piss off hardcore fans because you’ll be wrong about your opinion. So, it was a sure thing to be excited about his latest feature and make it my most anticipated movie of the year. Duh. This was going to the first big blockbuster to (hopefully) make a comeback for theaters, since it’s been a very long time since anything on this huge of a scale is on the silver screen. For many of us, we were worried this would get pushed back next year or something. It was amazing to finally see this after getting delayed a few times in the past. Although this was my second time being in the theater after six months, it was good knowing I’ll be seeing a big-budget film while staying as safe as I can while watching. With the downside of everything that was plagued this year, there was a good chance to walk out of Tenet feeling like the world will be better, as this will be the saving grace of all things. As my expectations were at a reasonable amount when watching the trailers, I can easily say this is another memorable hit from the director, even if I don’t consider it great right now.

From a technical standpoint, can I say flawless with Nolan’s involvement? Never will you doubt the filmmaking technique he brings to all of his films, and since we can consider this a globetrotting spy espionage thriller of some kind, this is the closest we’re getting to seeing his version of Bond. Imagine stepping into his mind to see the unique and original ideas he brought to life and how its execution with direction and writing. A film like Tenet shouldn’t be experienced on television on VOD or your computer screen, as it needs to be seen in the theater where you have to feel blown away by nearly every other aspect.

Every action sequence Nolan perfected is a work of beauty whenever it takes the time to feel unseen before our very eyes. You got your hand-to-hand combat scenes, car chases, gun battles with your eyes glued all the way through. From what I heard, they did most of the action so well through realistic practical effects, which is always a win in my book. That includes crashing a Boeing 747 into an airport carrier. What was so visually cool was how some of them took place forwards and backward through time. Some standouts won’t leave my mind, including the opening sequences inside of an opera house in Kyiv (the one I didn’t see before Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) and a hallway scene that’s almost on par with the classic we’ve seen from Inception that I couldn’t get enough of.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet (2020)

As for the performances, there’s an off chance of not caring about most of the characters as a whole, but you’re going to love the cast no matter what. John David Washington as The Protagonist brought so much charisma with his role as we the audience are following him the entire time. Trust me, I will see him in any movie with his name on it since he’s going to be Hollywood’s next big star, especially as an actor star. Do we get to know anything about his character? Not really. He’s not given much of a backstory to work with here, and he doesn’t even have an actual name in this when he simply “The Protagonist.” Robert Pattinson as Washington’s partner and fixer Neil is having a tremendous time here, proving wisely he can give a great performance when working under the direction of somebody unique, which is another reason why I’m stoked about him in The Batman yet again. The one performance who was given any emotional depth out of anybody came from Elizabeth Debicki’s character Kat. Not only does she provide a good performance showcasing this talented Australian can do no wrong, her subplot has some amount of reasoning to care for her and the situation she’s carrying as a character who’s surprisingly round rounded. The chemistry between her and Washington was good enough to keep interest. Kenneth Branagh puts on his Russian accent once again after Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to portray the film’s main villain, Andrei Sator, and he plays the kind of villainous arms dealer I expected to be chewing up the scenery.

The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, his second time collaborating with the director after his two prior films, took every breath away from me as this was visually stunning in every sense of the meaning. Every single frame was undeniably beautiful from location to location. The sole reason to see this in IMAX was to see everything captured on clear 70 mm, and there’s a good chance it’s the first front runner to win an Oscar.

When I heard Oscar-winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther) was going to provide the musical score and not from his long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer this time around since he was working on the upcoming Dune (that teaser gets the chef’s kiss of approval, btw), there was room to be slightly nervous. Yet, there was nothing to be letdown by since it was incredible, sounding like the most appropriate score rightfully place for a film of this scale. Without them, the lack of tension would be worrisome. There was no reason to be so since this is the top contender for the best score of the year by far.

John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki in Tenet (2020)

With that said, the reviews I’ve been watching before I saw this has mention the plot can appear as complex. To that, I have those exact sentiments as well whenever Tenet is up for discussion when it’s not a brilliant film thus far after one viewing. It’s all about this government agency trying to prevent World War III from happening to the world. The concept, while smart, need to delve into the mind more. I knew this was going to be related similar to time traveling, but much more. The story deals with the concept of Time Inversion, or time manipulation, which happens to be moving backward through time (much like its palindrome title). Never heard of it before until now, and it’s another film where he’s dealing with time in a fashion that’s interesting to see how it plays out since it has always been a fascination with him that I love. Was it what I expected? It was, and it couldn’t have been any better.

Never in my life will I ever consider myself the smartest person in the world, but during the first act and certain moments throughout, it was kind of hard trying to understand what’s happening. It’s also going to be challenging to explain to someone the general synopsis giving nothing away. The information provided to us can seem frustrating to its viewers. This is like taking an interesting elective in school, and about two days in, you have no clue what you’re in for, feeling totally lost when everybody else has it easy. That’s the example to go off of to describe this. Nolan goes out of his way of explains it through the characters with exposition scenes for what going on within the world this takes place in. Still, it’s one of those films where it’s easy to read through the Wikipedia page to get it.

Most people had a problem with Inception and considered it confusing to follow. How does one not understand people going inside dreams within another dream? For me, it was easy to get when I watched it for the second time, and have loved it ever since. But let it be sure this is the type of film that requires you to keep your attention. For one thing, I’m glad Nolan’s screenplay wasn’t making it easy on the audience and dumb it down to make it easy to understand when it always involves a mystery of sorts. Where the first half was difficult to comprehend, my interest raised right around the second act was when it kicked in and so on. Despite finding myself lost, I was still immersed with what everything is happening on screen from the first to the last frame in this 150-minute thriller that didn’t feel too long quite honestly.

Another issue others had if they saw it in IMAX was the sound mixing, which was the same problem I had while sitting through Interstellar and gave me a headache once again. This is such a weird thing that’s noticeable when the volume on the audio becomes so bombastic, making it kind of hard to hear what the characters are saying when it’s getting drawn out by either the score or the action taking place, especially when it involves masks being worn. Other might’ve had this problem too, or it maybe didn’t bother them at all.

John David Washington in Tenet (2020)

This is another Nolan film where a lot of happening, requiring a couple of re-watches to understand it, much like with Inception or Memento. Who knows? Maybe I’ll like it even more on the second viewing in the next few months. But something this ambitious will probably get divisive responses where it might not be for everyone, and it will get pretty annoying when you don’t want to hear a single person talk about one of his films negatively or disappointingly. If you’re a Nolan fan, you’re in for an adrenaline ride like nothing else. Compared to his other films, I have a feeling this will be another Interstellar, where you liked it the first time, but have since grown to love it upon multiple viewings. 

With all that said, Tenet shows Nolan’s originality behind the camera in his most complex and mind-blowing sci-fi yet. A person like me couldn’t be smart enough to think of anything like this. While I won’t say it’s great compared to his other pieces of work at the moment since it was tough to follow, it’s hard not to be blown away by its action spectacle, awe-inspiring cinematography, and a brilliant score to blast on repeat. Something like this deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available if there’s a theater opening near you right now. Did I want this to be my favorite film of the year? Sure, but it’s an experience that will have you wanting more after it’s over.

Where does this rank amongst Nolan’s other films?

* None of them are bad, by the way.

Grade: B

Tenet Movie Poster

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