First up, let me tell you there are no spoilers in this review because I don’t know how to begin spoiling this mindf**k of a movie.
So there will be nothing below that hasn’t already been revealed in the trailers.
That should give you an idea of the kind of experience you’re in for with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, an ambitious, visually spectacular and thrilling film that also happens to be confusing as hell.
It’s as if Nolan heard the complaints that Dunkirk’s multiple timelines were hard to follow and decided to troll those same people right back: “Confusing timelines, you say? Let me show you some confusing timelines!”
A first viewing of Tenet won’t leave you completely unmoored – you’re likely to understand the broad strokes of what went on – but if you start trying to deep dive into the nitty gritty details, without graphing it on a piece of paper, you’re going to get the bends.
Think of it as a maths problem where you have the question and the correct answer – it’s just all the working out in the middle that’s fuzzy.
Audiences were kept in the dark for ages as to what Tenet is actually about, and even now, it’s still hard to describe. There’s a covert mission to stop the onset of World War III where the threat is described as more fearsome than nuclear holocaust.
John David Washington ( BlacKkKlansman ) is named only as The Protagonist, an agent who is recruited to stop the threat. He, in turn, starts working with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a suave and knowing British operative.
Nolan stalwart Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clemence Poesy, Dimple Kapadia and Himesh Patel (Yesterday) round out the supporting players.
Nolan and Warner Bros won’t have to worry about depressed box office sales brought on by old mate rona, because everyone is going to have to see it at least twice. Whether a movie that requires a second viewing is a movie that works is very much open for debate.
All the hand-wringing over Tenet’s cinematic release date – and the very unlikely scenario that this movie would go directly to streaming or video-on-demand – pays off because this certainly is a theatrical experience.
Cinemas that are open have social distancing measures in place, including multiple sessions (38 in one day at Sydney’s CBD cinemas).
Tenet is BIG. Tenet is a movie made to be seen on a large screen with that brilliant Ludwig Goransson score pumping at top volume, the bass reverberating through the room and your muscles.
There’s no overstating the scale of Tenet, which moves from one enormous set-piece to another, including massive amphitheatres crowded with hundreds of people, jumbo jets, $200 million superyachts, abandoned Soviet towns and bungee-jumping off penthouses.
The production budget was pegged at somewhere between $US200 to $US225 million ($A278 to $A313 million) and those dollars show on up the screen – the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema looks incredible.
Key to its cool visuals is the concept that’s been revealed in the trailers, “time inversion”, a reversal of cause-and-effect. Think about what that means for how a punch lands or how a bullet is fired.
In the same way that Nolan incorporated those jaw-dropping physics-defying hand-to-hand combat and action sequences in Inception, he does something similar here. You just may not fully comprehend what you’re seeing.
Despite its long running time – 150 minutes – there’s a lot of forward momentum in Tenet so it never drags. The pacing is definitely brisk – maybe a little too brisk because it doesn’t give you any pause to try to catch up on what’s happening.
Save for Branagh and Debicki, there’s a deliberate stiffness to the performances, as if the characters even know they don’t have time for anything they’re saying to really land.
There’s no doubt that Tenet impresses on many levels but all the pizzazz doesn’t hide where the movie falls down: Its characters, which mostly have little-to-no backstory or discernible code.
Perhaps that’s all intentional. Tenet consciously obscures things from the audience like a puzzle box, but that doesn’t mean the approach works to be an emotionally grounded if not physically twisted story. That’s also not new for Nolan.
Still, Debicki’s character serves as the affecting core of the film and the writing has evolved from Nolan’s infamous “dead wife” trope in that she has agency of her own and doesn’t exist purely to motivate the male characters into action – there’s a bit of that too but at least it’s not only that.
If Tenet had paid as much attention to its writing and character work as it did to its visual and conceptual ambitions, it could have been a masterpiece instead of merely great. But it’s still great.
Tenet is in cinemas (except Victoria) from Thursday, August 27 with sneak previews running this weekend, August 22 and 23 – some cinemas are running it in 70mm format
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