Behold! Cinema is back! Nolan is here to save us all!
All jokes aside, the director who brought us The Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and Interstellar is back with another mind-bending blockbuster: Tenet.
Tasked with the prevention of WW3, The Protagonist (John David Washington) enters a dangerous and downright dazzling world of espionage that has to be seen to be believed. The key theme of Tenet, like the focus on dreams in Inception, is pretty straightforward: time inversion. What’s that you ask? Well it’s only reversing the flow of time so everything runs backwards but also forwards simultaneously. Okay, on the face of it and throughout much of the film’s rapidly paced first half, this is pretty confusing, but stick with it. This is as high-concept and quintessentially Nolan as anything you could possibly imagine, but ultimately for the better.
As is the norm with Nolan films, Interstellar in particular, the focus on sharp sound design and effects does leave some of the dialogue unintelligible, which is a drawback in a film so ambitious. Important exposition gets muddled up and this can be frustrating for sure. Equally, the aforementioned pacy first half of the film does feel a little rushed and jarring at times, as The Protagonist trots across the globe aiming to find out more about the mysterious Tenet and world-ending threat facing him. However, once the film hurtles into its second half, these problems dissolve and Tenet seamlessly transitions into filmmaking mastery.
Its final hour and a half, of a 2 hour 25 minute runtime that absolutely flies by, is stunning. Gorgeously crafted, meticulously choreographed and beautifully bold, Nolan directs with effortless confidence as his film reaches a continually impressive crescendo. As the time inversion element unravels and the film’s visual dynamism takes charge, one can only sit in awe of what unfolds before them. Nolan has proved time and time again that he has complete control over the blockbuster medium and Tenet is no different. Every aspect,from the story, to the characters to the superb technical prowess on display clicks into place and leads to a wholly thrilling, explosive climax.
The film is led brilliantly by John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman), who asserts his star power, charisma and impressive athleticism that makes The Protagonist the ideal blockbuster hero. It’s impossible not to root for him and hang on his every word and action, which offers even more promise for an already stellar career for the actor. Robert Pattinson, inexplicably playing a man called Neil, adopts the role of the charming British spy/physics genius with ease and his chemistry with Washington is simply delightful. The two bounce off of one another and their dialogue is often the source of well-written levity in the film’s script.
Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat is easily Nolan’s best written female character, though it doesn’t take much beating of course. She’s often the emotional heart of the film and gets some of its best moments, despite somewhat edging too closely to typical damsel in distress tropes. Equally, the great Kenneth Branagh is unusually vicious and downright evil as the snarling Russian arms dealer Sator, making for a pretty great villain. There’s the typical Michael Caine cameo, plus some excellent features for Dimple Kapadia and Aaron Taylor-Johnson that are crucial to the story.
On a technical level, it is nigh-on impossible to fault Tenet. The only issue is that the sound design, that is superbly satisfying and delicately crafted, sometimes overshadows the dialogue. Ludwig Göransson’s score is bombastic and stylish, fuelled by synth and guitars and a surprisingly shrewd change from the usual soft piano of Hans Zimmer. Unsurprisingly, Hoyte van Hoytema captures the film’s various locales in all their stunning glory. Where he particularly excels is the capturing of water, waves lapping and wide open oceans with lush backdrops make for simply delightful visuals throughout.
Nolan has always been a strong advocate for practical effects over digital and the set-pieces on display in Tenet perfectly encapsulate just how right he is about this. Huge sequences featuring boatloads of extras in an all out gunfight, a plane crashing into a building and a breathless opening sequence in an opera house make for engaging, entertaining and awe-inspiring pieces of action cinema at its very best.
Overall, despite the typical inaudible dialogue that at points may leave you a little confused and a rushed first half, Tenet is cinema at its best and marks a fine return to the big screen after Covid. From a technical perspective there is certainly a big chance at the Oscars for a few nods and Nolan could sneak his way in for Best Director, and deservedly so. Anchored by another star-making performance from John David Washington and a mind-warping, visually fluid story, see this on the biggest screen possible.
Words by Elliott Jones