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TENET is many things. Most notably, it’s probably the most straightforward film that Christopher Nolan has made since INSOMNIA. A visual treat, utilizing state of the art technology with classic cinema tricks, creates a wholly believable future vision. It is also needlessly convoluted. It’s peak Nolan, for better and for worse.
John David Washington plays The Protagonist (sigh). A suave, snarky secret agent working for a nameless organization with silly and counterproductive communication methods. As an operation fails, Washington stumbles into a group literally fighting against time, who arm him with one word: Tenet. A word that opens doors, behind which await only more questions and an ocean of exposition.
TENET is a film that is ambitious to a fault. Every aspect of the script has a Nolan spin on it, and while admirable, it comes with diminishing returns. Take, for example, the much advertised “inversion” that the trailers keep repeating. It’s just time travel with an added flourish. There’s even a time machine. Everything works the same as a time travel film, meaning you go with it, or the whole thing breaks down.
But Nolan doesn’t want to call it time travel because once you accept those rules, TENET becomes easier to read. Moments in the film hint of a more ambitious thriller, one unlike anything you’ve seen before. But they remain unfinished thoughts for the most part. The plot rushes forward in a stream-of-consciousness, free-flowing way. In that stream, TENET is at its best throwing ideas about. It only stumbles when it discards them for new ones the very next scene. (Pay attention, for example, just how long the titular word and gesture stick around in the story.)
Other times famous character actors will appear only to deliver the next clue or piece of exposition, but they rarely impact otherwise. Michael Caine makes a brief but delightful cameo, while Clemence Poesy drops in to deliver what amounts to a gameplay tutorial for Washington before disappearing entirely.
Nolan devotees will argue that multiple viewings are necessary to understand the big picture, and they’re right. But that’s not because this is a deep or complex film with nuance or grandiose themes. It’s complicated because the script is all over the place, and many of the big set pieces require a whiteboard and marker. Characters start scenes by saying, “as you know,” as they then explain what their listener supposedly already knows.
All of that is fine, by the way. It’s been fine ever since time travel became a favorite trope of storytellers to mess with their readers. But there’s a level of tongue-in-cheek that has to go with these plots; otherwise, they just feel dire and self-important. Which is something that TENET can’t help but succumb to multiple times.
The action is fun and wacky, including a genuinely spectacular chase sequence through Tallinn. But a portentous mood drags it down, and TENET can’t let go of its self-importance. LOOPER, the Rian Johnson-directed thriller from 2012, subverted this trope by having characters acknowledge the inherently contrived nature of time travel to great success.
There are moments in TENET that are so impactful and visionary they could only be experienced in cinema.
If all this sounds very negative, it’s not intentional. It’s merely a byproduct of Nolan being Nolan; a supremely gifted filmmaker with vision to spare. There are moments in TENET that are so impactful and bold they need a cinema for full effect. Sequences so daring and so beautiful, you can only wonder how Nolan came up with them. A reverse bungee jump into a heavily fortified building could be the climax to a lesser film. Here, it’s merely a light sojourn between bigger things. Which is why watching it stumble on its ambition is twice as painful, because you can feel that just a little bit of holding back would have made all the difference.
But consider that proposition, actually telling a filmmaker not to do everything in their power to deliver something grandiose and ambitious. How insane that feels! And yet there is a level to TENET that feels like it should be more restrained. As it stands, it’s both a spy thriller and a time travel film, a cerebral heist movie, and a James Bond pastiche. It’s funny and charming thanks to Robert Pattinson and Washington delivering the best odd couple pairing in years, but also a moody, explosively violent, and ugly family drama. One where Kenneth Brannagh provides a chilling and horrifying monster for the ages.
There’s also a promise of far more incredible adventures and a world beyond this one, almost as if Nolan was consciously setting up a franchise. Though that might just be a tease. Except for The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan rarely does sequels. Not even as fans continue clamoring for one to INCEPTION.
There’s also an uncomfortable feeling watching people live a life of luxury when the world is in its current state on a purely meta-level. This is a 200 million dollar production, and it looks like every penny of it is on screen. Shot in no less than seven countries, TENET is a globetrotting adventure, unlike any other. Planes crash, buildings topple, and every costume, set, and vehicle is the most exquisite you could imagine. It’s Nolan’s James Bond fantasy writ large as if to rub it in the faces of the Broccoli’s, who famously denied him the chance to direct the iconic franchise.
It even delivers the two best Bond replacements for Daniel Craig we’ve ever had in Washington and Pattinson, who light up the screen as utterly charismatic leading men.
TENET is a film that does nothing new, but everything it does is presented in a way we’ve never seen before.
Does any of this make TENET a lesser film? Well, no, not really. But it also doesn’t make it a better one. It’s a conflicted and contradictory film by its nature, one that I can see dividing audiences right down the middle. There will be those who’ll rejoice in seeing something truly epic in scope on the big screen, especially in a year that’s devoid of such joys on this scale. Others will deride the film for its clinical script that trades its best emotional moments for Wikipedia-Esque explanations of concepts that it doesn’t particularly seem to care about.
And both sides would be entirely right. TENET is a film that does nothing new, but everything it does is in a way we’ve never seen before. It’s a magic trick you already know, produced with vision possessed by only a rare few.
It will be discussed, dissected, argued, celebrated, and hated for years to come. Even more so than INCEPTION, it’s a portrait of the man who made it, and that alone should be worthy of praise.
It’s the kind of work of art that makes ratings feel useless. A five-star experience, even if it isn’t a five-star film.