Nolan’s work here is a sci-fi sledgehammer—a mind-numbing head-scratcher on the first viewing, but the confoundment subsides when you do a ‘temporal pincer movement’ on yourself with each subsequent viewing, which is really how you should experience his latest ambitious if at times overbearing cinematic Sudoku puzzle.
Dir. Christopher Nolan
2020 | USA/UK | Action/Sci-Fi/Thriller | 150 mins | 2.20:1 | English & some various other languages
PG13 (passed clean) for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Plot: Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
Distributor: Warner Bros
Subject Matter: Moderate – Time Travel
Narrative Style: Complex
Audience Type: Mainstream
Viewed: Shaw Waterway IMAX
To say that Christopher Nolan’s new work is a mind-bender (or for some, a head-scratcher) is to say that sugar dissolves in hot coffee.
Tenet is arguably his most conceptually ambitious effort to date, and let’s make it clear, you won’t be able to understand it completely on your first viewing—and that is the point.
In fact, the second viewing will be your first true experience of the movie once you do a ‘temporal pincer movement’ (a phrase coined in the film) on yourself by watching the film again with new knowledge.
This may be down to Nolan’s sheer ‘forward-thinking’ ingenuity, or for less charitable viewers, an overreaching gimmick that conveniently hides what seems like on the surface a frustrating and incoherent work.
Without going into the plot (even if I wanted to, I won’t be able to write anything coherent), Tenet can be best described as a high-stakes espionage-type sci-fi thriller that expands what a time-travel movie could be.
It is also a sledgehammer of a film, with Nolan bombarding the audience with image and sound far more numbingly than usual—he wastes no time, with the opening action sequence already designed to be a full-blown assault to the senses.
“What the hell happened here?”
“Hasn’t happened yet.”
This can get overbearing at times, and one might also be aggrieved at how problematic the sound mix is, especially the lack of clarity of dialogue and exposition at this level of filmmaking (subtitles will greatly help).
That being said, Tenet’s action sequences are so outrageous, immersive and visually groundbreaking that it doesn’t take long to forget the glaring flaws.
It is pure aural-visual cinema on a spectacular scale—can you imagine the film being adapted into a stage play, or translated into prose for a paperback?
Nolan has been accused of making films that lack feeling, and Tenet very much proves this point further. It can be a rather hollow emotional experience, and most viewers would not feel particularly connected to any of the characters.
That in itself may be satisfying to boot. After all, it’s harder to feel with your mind than with your heart.