The journey to watching Christopher Nolan‘s Tenet has been a surprisingly epic one for me. Obviously, I’m hardly the only one, but still. If you told me at the start of the year that I wouldn’t see Nolan’s latest until December, I’d think you were nuts. However, life and COVID made seeing it in a theater, after it finally was released into theaters, something I just wasn’t going to do. So, at home, on 4K, is where I finally experienced it. So, here we are. I’ve seen Tenet, and you know what? It’s good! would it have been worth traveling out of state to see, potentially putting myself at risk of contracting the virus? Of course not. But, now hitting 4K, Blu-ray, and Digital on Tuesday, it’s definitely one of 2020’s best blockbusters.
Tenet has a lot of the Nolan markings we’ve come to expect. Of course, there’s a divisive sound mix, but also the notion that time is not on our side. Here, time, and a version of time travel, is literally an enemy. So, it fits into the themes that’s interested him over the years, delighting some and causing consternation in others. Here, it’s all distilled into something that brings out the extremes in both sides of the argument. Myself? As usual, I’m caught somewhere in between.
Yes, the elephant in the room is that, clearly, Christopher Nolan did not intend the film to be seen for the first time in this manner. At the same time, it looks great at home. Moreover, the issue some have with not being able to hear the dialogue in his recent flicks is solved by being able to raise the volume. Basically, despite not seeing it on the big screen (ideally in IMAX), I still feel like I was able to get everything that filmmaker intended.
The movie opens with a terrorist attack on an opera house. A SWAT team, led by an American operative (John David Washington), arrives to try and extract a compromised spy, but things go awry and our hero is captured. Taking a cyanide pill to avoid interrogation, he wakes up to discover it was all a test, with him now recruited into the mysterious agency Tenet. A higher up (Martin Donovan) informs him that he’s meant to prevent something worse than World War III. Thus begins his new assignment, one that only gets more complicated when a scientist (Clémence Poésy) introduces him to Inversion, a process in which objects move backwards in time.
Inversion, our protagonist learns, is a process from the future, which has sent back numerous objects. It’s suggested that something horrible has happened in the future, so the Tenet group is trying to prevent that from somehow happening. Embarking on the mission, the protagonist brings along another agent (Robert Pattinson), soon learning that a Russian arms dealer named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is receiving these inverted objects. Using his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), they get close to the Russian oligarch, soon learning that time is decidedly not on their side. It all results in a massive fight for the future (and past, and present) of mankind. Got all that? Well, as a character says early on…”don’t try to understand it. Just feel it.”
This is the Christopher Nolan show. The characters are cyphers, so it’s all about the puzzle box that is Inversion, as well as how Nolan films it all. As the Ludwig Göransson score pounds in your ear, you’re meant to just take it all in and figure it out later. While it frustrates at times, it’s deliberate, as Tenet doesn’t benefit as much from deep thought as you might expect. The more you break it down, the more the frays in the wire show. Taken just as a thrill ride, however, it’s mostly superb.
John David Washington is Nolan’s Bond and it mostly works. Washington has a part without any backstory, like the rest of the cast, but he has a screen presence that elevates the role. The same goes for Robert Pattinson, with both showcasing some solid 007 vibes. Kenneth Branagh is a stock villain, while Elizabeth Debicki brings a slight extra layering to the damsel in distress. There are additional supporting roles for Michael Caine (Nolan’s lucky charm), Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, and more, but they don’t leave much of an impression. It’s about the concept and the spectacle, not the humans.
Visually, this is one of Nolan’s crispest works. Cinematographer Hoye Van Hoytema revels in making this part Bond, part Inception, and all science fiction epic. You may not always understand what’s going on, but it always looks good. The technical marvel of Tenet does cover some of its more puzzling (no pun intended) elements, too. Anytime you’re starting to wonder if everything you’re seeing adds up, something new and spectacular happens. In short, if you can turn yourself over to the spectacle of action set pieces moving backwards, as opposed to pondering the logistics or viability of it all, you’re set up for a good time.
Tenet will go down as middle of the road Nolan. For my money, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk, Interstellar, and Memento are top tier Nolan. So, this is a step below that. It’s still engaging and entertaining. Go figure, it’s not a masterpiece and it’s not a misfire. Hitting home video on Tuesday, stay tuned for more Tenet talk then, but just know that it’s worth checking out, if you haven’t yet.