Review: 'Tenet' (2020) Dir. Christopher Nolan
Director Christopher Nolan returns for another mind-bending action thrill ride that blends past and present for an espionage adventure like no other...
A special forces operative (Washington) is hired by a top-secret intelligence organisation known as Tenet. Their goal is preventing World War III; not caused by nuclear weapons, but something far more dangerous.
Teamed up with fellow agent Neil (Pattinson), the new recruit is thrust into a deadly arm manufacture that is being carried out in the future, with a weapon that exists in the present that can erase the past.
With a dangerous and complex web of key figures including Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Brannagh) and his wife Kat (Debicki), the Tenet operatives must learn to open their minds to the future to protect the present at all costs...
"Don't try to understand it," scientist Clémence Poésy says to our perplexed secret agent John David Washington. And she's right. After a thrilling opening sequence that introduces us to Washington as our capable special forces agent and an equally thrilling score by Ludwig Göransson that you would swear is Hans Zimmer, the plot soon gets complicated and quickly. But, then, this is Christopher Nolan we are talking about.
Washington leads the film with confidence in both acting and physical ability, coming across as Nolan's mix of James Bond and Ethan Hunt; he looks suave when he needs to and handles himself in a fight. This is Nolan's attempt at his own Bond film. He mixes international travel, glorious gadgets and weapons, dangerous villains, betrayal, espionage and a fractured hero with his own blend of intricate narrative, action and character traits.
Nolan's co-stars are solid as ever. Robert Pattinson stands tall with Washington in the action and acting stakes as Tenet operative Neil, getting stuck into things with a charming British accent. Kenneth Branagh's Russian Sator embodies the best of the Bond pastiche villains, a man with dark and dangerous criminal connections making a business out of war. Elizabeth Debicki's long suffering wife of said Branagh radiates quiet beauty, but isolation and fear being trapped in a marriage that she can't escape from.
Nolan always gets his casting spot-on for the requirements of his films. As this is an espionage thriller, the characters are intriguing and complex, and layered in a way you never know how they will turn out in the end.
Something about this film feels a little sloppy - maybe it's the evident gaps in editing by Jennifer Lame, especially in an early scene with Washington and Debicki where with each cut they are in conflicting positions. It's not something I like to say sticks out in film if done right, but this stuck out like a sore thumb, especially with the amount of focus you are forced to give to keep up with the winding threads of character relationships going on.
The visual effects are impressive for the most part, but it's simply a blend of forward and reverse motion and it's noticeable. Compared to the practical effects and high-octane methods used in films in 'Inception' or 'Interstellar', 'Tenet' feels like a step back. That's not to say the effects dampen the action, because Nolan goes for grandeur with a few impressive practical set pieces such as a siege on Oslo airport and car chase heist in Estonia. These moments are entertaining, but Estonia especially is peppered with "what the f..." sequences that simply baffle as you try to comprehend why things happen with multiple versions of characters popping up.
And when this DOES happen, it's best to go back to Poésy's advice. "Don't try to understand it."
Nolan's story about being attacked from the future doesn't make it easy to follow, but at least the action helps to compensate the mind-bending narrative. It's a narrative that is often frustrating to keep up with; not to understand, but to comprehend and find entertaining. So many plot devices are thrown into the mix, with Washington and Debicki the main focus of the fast paced back and forth, here and there plot points you need to keep up with as the story rockets on.
This is a long watch at just under 2hrs 30mins, but thankfully it is saved from multiple headaches when Nolan averts from the mind-bending time travel nonsense and lets the espionage take over. International locations are glorious when framed by the sunshine or night-time clouds, and you really get a sense of this globe-trotting ride. With Göransson's perfect score, this is where the film shines.
Skulking around on multi-million dollar yachts, spying on arms deals in shady dockyards and plotting to meet mysterious characters is always fun to watch. Washington and Pattinson help join the dots with each new sequence by explaining what needs to happen and why, and any repercussions that could follow. They're the safety blanket you need to keep up with what happens and why it does happen...or when it will.
Nobody could really pull this level of inverted narrative than Nolan; you know what to expect, but it's not something everybody will enjoy. The talent pull it off well, even if this time bending story does go above and beyond the average espionage outing. But, then, this is no average espionage outing.
'Tenet' has Nolan's fingerprints all over it - a solid cast, a perplexing narrative, dreamy visual effects but in an experience that tries to be too clever for it's own good.
'Tenet' is a Warner Bros. Pictures and Syncopy production