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.