Under normal circumstances, my wife and I would have seen Tenet the Tuesday after it was released. With the pandemic having regained momentum over the last several months, my wife Is not interested in sitting in a movie theater anytime soon, so I took a half day this past Friday to see the movie solo.
I wasn’t that nervous about sitting in a theater, to be honest. I’d read articles in the news about the measures theater owners were taking to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for patrons. Paying for the ticket required me to swipe my own credit card. There wasn’t any fresh popcorn, to my surprise, but it was 3:00 PM on a Friday afternoon. In my theater, alternating seats were closed off to keep people at a safe distance from each other. Each seat had a strip of paper on it, stating how the seat had been sanitized for my protection. I was the only one in the theater until some rambunctious kids showed up. I suspect they really didn’t want to see Tenet. They chose the theater furthest from the lobby so that nobody would intrude on their shenanigans. Fortunately, the theater I was at always has the volume turned up way too high, so their antics didn’t affect me in the least
Some folks were able to see Tenet when it was initially released in the States back on September 3. (Theaters in Michigan weren’t allowed to reopen until October 9.) The movie actually was released internationally in August. By the time you read this review, Tenet has been reviewed and analyzed hundreds of times over. If you haven’t seen it in a theater yet, I completely understand if you don’t want to take the risk. However, you will be missing out on one of the best action movies I’ve ever seen. If you’re going to wait until Tenet is available on VOD or DVD, that’s fine. I definitely recommend you see it, however you ultimately plan to do so.
Director Christopher Nolan was adamant about releasing Tenet in theaters, so that audiences would be able to see it on the big screen, the way he intended for this and all of his previous movies to be seen. I agree with his tenet completely (hehe). Watching Nolan’s movies on a large screen TV at home, with an excellent sound system would be approximate to the film theater experience, but it’s not the same. For example, there is a sequence in the movie where the characters are in a catamaran race. The way Nolan films the sequence, with the rushing waters, the crystal blue skies, the cliffs off-shore, is a treat for the eyes and ears. Watching that scene at home, you’d miss the clarity and the scale intended for the visuals. If you’ve watched even just a few of Nolan’s movies, you know he always goes big or not at all. (Memento would be the rare instance of a small-scale Nolan.)
As an avowed cineaste, I appreciate that Nolan films his movies as spectacles. For him (and many others), films are meant to be impressive and immersive. Making movies about superheroes (The Dark Knight trilogy), space travel (Interstellar) or war (Dunkirk) certainly makes it easier for Nolan to use all of the filmmaker tools at his disposal. (Orson Welles’ quote on arriving to RKO studios comes to mind: “The biggest electric train set any boy ever had!”) Nolan even was able to adapt his expansive vision to a movie about thieves who appear in people’s dreams (Inception). In many ways, Tenet is the spiritual cousin to Inception. They both deal with time in mind-bending ways, have introduced revolutionary special effects and new ways to film action sequences, and featured top-notch acting. If you’re a fan of Nolan and Inception in particular, you will really enjoy Tenet.
Analysis of Tenet has focused on how Nolan has incorporated a concept from quantum physics into the plot of the movie. While it is true that the plot of the movie involves entropy, both forward and in reverse, you don’t need to be a physicist to follow along. The movie spends a decent amount of time explaining the underlying concept, particularly reverse entropy, which is being employed by the villain for nefarious and somewhat inscrutable purposes. You don’t need to be a physicist to enjoy the movie, anymore than you need to understand how gravity plays a role in space travel before watching Interstellar.
Tenet begins with a taut action sequence that was the focus of the trailers. A terrorist organization takes control of the Kiev Opera in Russia. (The soundtrack plays like The Beatles “A Day in the Life” on repeat.) A response team feeds gas into the hall, rendering the audience unconscious. (If this seems familiar, remember the The Moscow theater hostage crisis back in 2002?) A smaller team of operatives, led by John David Washington (referred to as The Protagonist in the movie, but I’ll refer to him as (Washington) here), blends in with the response team. Their mission is to seek out an asset and attempt to either rescue him or kill him if he declines to be extracted. Washington’s team saves the audience and extracts the asset, but are somehow foiled by the terrorists. Washington and a member of his team are tortured in a rail-yard, and Washington takes what he believes is a cyanide capsule. Awakened on a ship, (Washington) learns that the capsule was a fake, and is asked to join an organization called Tenet. Their mission is essentially to save the world.
(Washington’s) assignment is to get close to Andrei Sator, a Ukrainian arms dealer played by Kenneth Branagh. Sator has stolen Uranium from a nuclear warhead and the Tenet organization wants to stop the sale. Washington is paired with Neil (Robert Pattinson), and the two of them hatch a plan to use Sator’s wife Kat as a way to get close to Sator. Kat is an art appraiser, and she knowingly sold Andrei a fake Goya drawing. Sator knows it is a fake, and uses that as blackmail to keep Kat from leaving him. The deal (Washington) makes with Kat for an introduction to Andrei involves stealing the fake drawing from a free port in an Oslo airport. Nolan’s affection for heists is well known, having been key elements in The Dark Knight and Inception. As you may have guessed, the heist of the fake drawing (or the attempt thereof) plays a key role in Tenet.
As you have already seen, the heist involves running a plane into the airport’s holding area so that the automatic fire safeguards will be triggered. Being chemical-based, the safeguards force occupants to immediately go into secure rooms to avoid choking to death. The airplane crash is actually the least interesting part of the sequence. While attempting to locate the drawing, Neil and (Washington) find a large turnstile. It is here where (Washington) confronts and fights with a masked man who is moving in reverse. The sequence is a revelation, in the same way that the concept of “bullet time” was in The Matrix, or fighting on the ceiling was in Inception. Strangely enough, I want to know how the scene was filmed, but I also don’t want to know, to keep the movie magic alive.
In addition to the concert hall sequence and the Oslo airport sequence, Tenet features several other action sequences that are mind-blowing. There is a car chase where an inverted Sator pursues (Washington) while driving in reverse. There is a later scene where Sator’s inverted double confronts (Washington) over the whereabouts of a missing device. And the final action sequence involves a “temporal pincer movement”, where two fully-armed teams converge on Sator’s compound in Siberia, one moving forward in time with the other in reverse. I honestly couldn’t explain the logistics of that sequence if my life depended on it, but the scope of it was amazing to behold on the big screen. There was one group of soldiers moving in reverse while the other movies forward, with explosions and gunfire happening in both directions at the same time. As I said, mind-blowing.
I could easily spend another several thousand words describing the plot of Tenet, but the internet has already produced several good summaries of the movie. (I’ll list a few at the end as references.) If you feel a bit lost after seeing the movie, don’t feel that you failed as a moviegoer. Trust me, you’re not alone! I actually felt better knowing that I wouldn’t understand the entire movie the first time out. To paraphrase one of the characters in the movie, I didn’t try to think about it too much, and just went with it. There is a lot of “movie” in this movie that will leave you plenty entertained.
Throughout Nolan’s career, he’s shown a fondness for spy movies. He previously cited From Russia With Love as a major influence in Inception. Tenet appropriates many of the same elements from the James Bond movies. It has a dashing, well-dressed secret agent (Washington), a Russian villain (Brannagh), a beautiful woman in distress (Elizabeth Debicki), a memorable handler (Pattison), a plot for world destruction, and so on. If Tenet isn’t Nolan’s application to direct a James Bond movie, I don’t know what is. The producers behind the James Bond franchise should hand Nolan and Washington the keys to the Astin Martin.
Some critics have called Tenet cold and calculating. I never felt that way. Washington is a charismatic leading man, and his performance here proves that he can deliver a performance with many layers. Pattison and Washington show great chemistry, and Pattison looks like he’s having a grand time playing a second banana who knows more than he’s letting on. Brannagh hams things up famously as the Sator. He convincingly portrays a villain who’s threats are just as brutal as his deeds. Michael Caine shows up for a small cameo which, even though it felt like Nolan interrupted Caine’s lunch and asked him to deliver a few lines, was still charming. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat is glamorous and deceptive at first, but mostly out of necessity. She reminded me of a crane, or maybe a swan with her natural beauty and grace.
Tenet is a packed two-and-a-half hours, filed with bravura action sequences and dense exposition. At the end of the movie, I definitely wanted to see it again. Nolan’s films typically become richer with repeat viewings. I also appreciate that Nolan’s films are challenging. They make your brain hurt a bit, but in a good way, if that makes sense. Ultimately, Nolan is forcing us to confront our understanding of time, and the way that we perceive it. As a species, we tend to look at time as perpetually moving forward. But we all experience time, or the events that happen in a given time-frame, differently. Memory plays tricks on our perceptions of time as well. Tenet fits well alongside Memento, Insomnia, Interstellar and Dunkirk as another visual examination of how time is not as linear and measured as we think it is. Tenet may not be for everyone, but for true cineastes, re-experiencing Nolan’s entropic-driven plot twists is an arresting diversion. Highly recommended.