There’s a reason why the anticipation of a Christopher Nolan film often feels monumental. The originality Nolan brings to the screen results in almost every cinemagoer, filmmaker and critic waiting with baited breath for his newest venture. From Inception’s dream-within-a-dream concept to the reverse-chronology puzzle of Momento, Nolan’s thrive for ingenuity cannot be denied. Even World War II thrill Dunkirk refused to be a paint-by-numbers war film, but instead played with time and non-linear storytelling in a way only Nolan can.
Tenet, his most ambitious and inventive film, somehow raises the stakes in a mind-bending race against time to save humanity from potential disaster.
John David Washington leads the star-studded cast as a nameless CIA agent who refers to himself as The Protagonist. After a rescue mission at a Kiev opera house, a string of events leads The Protagonist to learn about an organization called tenet, which introduces him to scientist, Laura (Clémence Poésy), who explains the law of inverted entropy to him and the audience. The scene ultimately sets the stage as Washington gathers the tools and understanding needed to save the world.
As is common practice with Nolan’s screenplays, his originality results in a significant amount of exposition through dialogue, although not all of it can be understood due to the distracting and oftentimes overbearing sound mixing. The noise of ships, explosions and even Ludwig Göransson’s albeit tremendous score often overwhelms the dialogue, leading to some of the films integral lines and plot points getting drowned out.
It’s Tenet’s only real flaw, but it’s a distracting one.
Sequences involving inverted entropy and reverse time are some of the most ambitious and spectacular in recent years, particularly toward the films climax. While the dialogue in Nolan’s films are always the most important aspects thanks to the per-discussed exposition, the astonishing visuals are often what elevates it from good to great, and Tenet is no exception.
Washington proved with BlacKkKlansman that he is one of Hollywood’s most exciting leading men, but Tenet reaffirms that as his effortless charm and intensity carries the film through some of its more complex and convoluted junctures.
Robert Pattinson is wonderfully suave as Washington’s CIA handler Neil, providing some of the films most memorable lines, including one cleverly inspired from Casablanca that leaves a powerful mark. It’s also no surprise Elizabeth Debicki is the crown jewel of the film, similar to her role in Widows.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson also deserves praise as he becomes of the most versatile and underrated character actors working today, while Kenneth Branagh is reliable as ever portraying the villain Sator in devilish style.
One of the most integral parts of Tenet is its use of color, with red and blue used to symbolize which direction of time particular characters and scenes are happening. It’s a simple but effective trick from Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, which grants greater understanding to what is seen on screen. As expected from Van Hoytema, his work is exceptional and a potential Oscar contender.
Black Panther composer Göransson provides another memorable score, with a heist sequence at Oslo Airport one of the films defining tracks.
Whether it follows the same awards trajectory as Inception and Dunkirk remains to be seen, but there is a case for Nolan to snag nominations for picture and director depending on what’s released during the remainder of the year. Below-the-line nominations seem certain, aside from sound mixing, which will come as no surprise given Nolan’s previous record in those categories.
Tenet is a film that while extremely complex, is impossible not to admire due to the sheer scale of its ambition and originality. It’s among Nolan’s strongest work and appreciation will no doubt grow greater in time when more of the puzzle is unravelled, discussed and understood.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson