‘a high-faluting, high energy, uber-glam espionage thriller’

And so, the first blockbuster movie of 2020 arrives, delayed several times, and unlikely to break box-office records as the world wakes up to the realities of restricted cinema-going in the thick of a pandemic. But Tenet is well timed in that as rivals withdraw, this really is the only show in town, a high-faluting, high energy, uber-glam espionage thriller that’s got a clear run at the box office for weeks to come. And Tenet demands attendance, using every inch of the huge IMAX screen and with a sound design that’ll haunt your dreams as it vibrates the ventilated air.

The title is a palindrome, and so, in certain ways, is writer/director Christopher Nolan’s movie; to say more would require spoilers. And with Nolan’s name being an established international brand for thoughtful, globe-trotting action, there’s quite a lot to spoil in Tenet, which is very much a sister film to Inception, revised with a multi-cultural cast, and should appeal to the same wide audience. In fact, having no competition might well suit Tenet, which will undoubtedly require several watches to nail down the possible meanings, of which there are many.

BlackkKlansman’s John David Washington plays the protagonist, named The Protagonist, who slips from special–ops into a mind-bending alternate-reality where the word Tenet functions as a code to others in on the deadly industrial espionage game. We’re talking time-travel of a kind, but one with a specific visual gimmick, as seen from the trailer; the inverted action happens backwards. This brings to mind Leonard Shelby, the protagonist of Memento, who could only understand his experience in reverse, but Nolan’s complex plotting ensures that this high-concept is more than just a novelty; the entire film depends on the characters understanding time backwards and forwards, and so even an accurate description of the pulse-pounding opera siege that forms the opening scene might give away the ending. So that’s your lot in terms of story; one character explains, since knowing your future can inform your present understanding.

An image of a uniformed public school-boy is key here; although he pulls together a lavish, globe-trotting production and a multi-racial cast, this is old-school Boys Own stuff with a lick of Tarkovsky-level sci-fi. That’s not to say that Nolan’s sense of humour deserts him, since there’s some witty throwaway gags, like one about the Protagonist’s suit and British snobbery. There’s also a substantial, ambiguous part for Robert Pattinson, who appears in a white-linen suit like a fugitive from a Graham Greene novel, and also a ground-breaker from Elizabeth Debricki as an arms dealer’s wife. Less enthusiasm is due for Kenneth Branagh, sporting a pantomime accent and rarely menacing as her jealous husband. It’s a Nolan film, so Michael Caine also turns up for makes an exposition-driven cameo, and indie-star Martin Donovan has a neat cameo role.

Seen on IMAX, Tenet rocks through massive deep tread set-pieces, including an exploding jet-plane and a rip-roaring BMW-led inverted car chase, all of which have snap and power, and should satisfy even if the story frustrates at points; after the first climax, there’s a dip into heavy techno-babble which slows things down. But the big finale pulls things together with elan, and makes Tenet a satisfying film, even if it doesn’t provide quite the shock to the system that Inception did. If you only plan on leaving your current place of shelter to see one film in 2020, Tenet’s mix of bombast and sophistication sets an imperious, irresistable tone.

Many thanks to Warner Brothers for early access to this title.

Tenet screens from Aug 27th 2020 in the UK.


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  1. This film not only requires, but begs repeated viewing. It’s so stuffed with characters, side plots and double meanings, it takes more than just a couple viewings to unpack everything that it has to offer. Mind bending is the right term. It’s just been announced that is coming out on 4K UHD on the 16th December. Was gutted to find out that it only comes with an hour long making of as the sole special feature. Was really looking forward to owning this on Bluray, just to find out how Nolan pulled some of those crazy stunts out.

    • Totally agree that the first viewing of this film will not be the ultimate one. Was looking forward to a second viewing while I watched it for the first time; simply too much to unpack in one sitting. Mind-bending for sure!

    • It feels like a time-passer for Nolan, but with blockbusters few and far between, it’ll do to be getting on with!

  2. Our covid numbers are high in the US, so I don’t know that I’m pleased that Nolan is intent on luring us into theaters. That being said, I look forward to seeing R Patz coming off as a “Graham Greene character.’ ;0

    • I’m a fan of R Patz, and he suits the Our Man in Havana vibe. There’s no plague I wouldn’t be keen to avoid, so I’d only go if and when I feel safe. We might end up back in the days when a film would run for months to reach an audience…

  3. I did like Inception a lot, though time-travel / world shifting stuff drives The Man of The House bonkers,. I’ll get to see Tenet eventually and be prepared to be mind boggled 🙂

    • I think you’ll have a good few weeks to get your homework done, no comparable big movies due out for a while…

  4. Looking forward to this, even though I thought Inception was overrated. Nolan’s gimmicks don’t always seem to live up to their potential. At least for me.

    • Leaving the gimmick aside, there’s more than enough state-of-the-art action to make this worth a ticket. Enjoy!

  5. I’m totally not jealous here, really I’m not…you believe me right? 😅😅 Seriously though, I’m very much looking forward to this film, ever since having seen the trailers for it. I didn’t expect it to be as good as Inception, so that’s not a real surprise. What I do expect though is a good film, and after having read your review for it, I’m pretty much convinced now that’s the case. Even though the script is tough to follow, it’s nothing that hasn’t happened before with Nolan’s films. I needed to watch Inception a second time as well, to fully comprehend it 😊 Great review!

    • Based on your note here, I think you’ll enjoy, it’s another slice of the Inception pizza, a bit more action here, and although the surprise is missing, who wouldn’t want another slice of Inception universe action?

      • I’m working on a new feature of my blog, which will be revealed tomorrow. Suffice it to say that Inception will definitely be featured there at some point 😊I could not agree more though…I definitely want another slice of the universe (then again there are many universes I want more slices of…Bladerunner definitely being one of them 😊).

        • Agreed on all counts, and will be tuning in to your blog with lazer focus for Inception…thanks!

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