A still from <i>Tenet.</i>

Tenet Review: Christopher Nolan Pulls a New Trick Out of Old Bag

Does Christopher Nolan have something new to offer in his latest release Tenet?

Movie Reviews
4 min read

Tenet Review: Christopher Nolan Pulls a New Trick Out of Old Bag

In an early scene in Tenet, a scientist played by Clémence Poésy drops by to explain the science behind Christopher Nolan's new movie, before giving up herself: "Don't try to understand it. Feel it." That’s really the only way you can enjoy Tenet.

Describing a Nolan film is never easy. If Tenet were a Beatles song, it would be Revolution 9: gun shots and car crashes, breaking glass and muffled words, all come together in a mix, made all the more unintelligible by segments happening forward and backward. Don't be surprised if a conspiracy theory-minded Nolan fan goes on Reddit, claiming to have found the answers to Inception's ending and if life itself is just a dream on watching Tenet in reverse.

To put it more simply, Tenet is a literal race against time, which has been bent, expanded and shrunk in previous Nolan fare and now gets inverted.

John David Washington leads a secret organisation to save the world from a threat that comes from the future but originated in the past. Accompanying him on this globe-trotting mission is Robert Pattinson, who makes for a charming sidekick. Their chemistry offers some comfort amidst the stifling self-seriousness. The antagonist with capital A is Kenneth Branagh, who plays a Russian arms dealer with a grand scheme to destroy the world in order to save it. Perhaps Nolan didn't get the memo from Hollywood: The bad guys are either Chinese or brown now.

A still from <i>Tenet.</i>
A still from Tenet.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

With her towering height, Elizabeth Debicki feels right at home in an action movie. But Nolan scales her down to Evil Russian's abused wife, a doting mother and a mere accessory to the men's world-saving mission. He throws in a subplot with a stolen Goya painting for good cultural measure. Dimple Kapadia appears from time to time to point Washington in the right direction, and feeds him information on Evil Russian and the MacGuffins (nine Horcruxes hidden around the world that make up something called the Algorithm). For a movie which leaves Earth’s fate to a time war, the characters seem too emotionally barren. So, it doesn't hook you like some of Nolan's better films.

Just like in Memento, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk, time running out presents the key existential threat in Tenet. Nolan pulls a new trick out of his old bag. It’s not time travel here, it’s time inversion.

The Algorithm is a technology from the future which can reverse the flow of time by inverting the entropy of objects. This essentially inverts the cause and effect relationship as we know it. It also means characters move forwards and backwards simultaneously. Cars too. Semantically speaking, the subject, verb and predicate may thus appear in different orders but they coincide in the physicality of what they each embody in the sentence structure. Indeed, the collision of the past, present and future in this synchronised dance could cause the destruction of Earth as we know it.

A still from <i>Tenet.</i>
A still from Tenet.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Between crashing a real Boeing 747 into a building and a car chase sequence with an immeasurable carbon footprint, no one — from Greta Thunberg to the Nolan fanboy — could have guessed that Tenet would be about climate change. Evil Russian insists he's rewriting the past to undo all the damage we've done to our planet. "Because their oceans rose and their rivers ran dry," he says, even describing bringing his son into such a world his "greatest sin." Nolan of course abandons any further discussion on climate change in favour of save-the-world action.

Tenet opens with a Quantum of Solace-like sequence in a packed opera house in Ukraine. The cause and effect of a pointed baton makes the analogy of Nolan being in complete control perfectly clear. The conductor directs his musicians to a moment of complete silence, before we hear the sound of a bullet pierce his body. Terrorists attack, and the siege is foiled by an elite team of operatives. Blurring the lines between music and sound design, Ludwig Göransson turbocharges the events with a wall-to-wall score that raises the stakes of the action unfolding.

A still from the sets of&nbsp;<i>Tenet.</i>
A still from the sets of Tenet.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Some set pieces will leave you shaken, some stirred. An armoured truck heist which turns into backwards-forwards car chase on the freeway would surely have dropped the collective jaws of many audiences. Washington picks off bad guys with a cheese grater in a brutal kitchen brawl, and fights himself twice in meticulously choreographed backwards-forwards sequences. He climbs a high-rise building in Mumbai before bungee jumping off of it. Of course, once you've seen Tom Cruise scale Burj Khalifa, it doesn't feel like a biggie. Blowing up a cargo plane for a mere diversion isn't the most fulfilling empty calories it could have been.

The temporal pincer movement in the climax is yet another instance of Nolan struggling for rhythm in an action sequence. The restless camera and the hyper-caffeinated editing imbue it with a frenetic energy. But it is hard to keep track of who's who, when and where. Nolan would do well to learn from John Wick director Chad Stahelski on how to establish spatial relationships between elements within the frame and between shots.

Time is Nolan's foremost obsession and he has spent a lot of time trying to redefine it. In the middle of a global pandemic, we have spent a lot of time eagerly anticipating the release of his new film, and whether to risk our lives to watch it in theatres. Now that it has released, we will spend a lot more time trying to unscramble all the pieces and try to make sense of it all. Only, Tenet is not worth the time spent, being spent and to be spent.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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