Christopher Nolan’s Tenet Review: A Deep Sci-Fi Thriller That Lives Up To The Nolan Legacy

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet Review: A Deep Sci-Fi Thriller That Lives Up To The Nolan Legacy
Image: Warner Bros. / Syncopy

With all the hallmarks of a Nolan classic (a booming soundtrack, existentialist theory and a rogue cameo from Michael Caine), Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is 2020’s best film so far, and well worth the coronavirus-induced wait.

Secrecy has long surrounded Tenet‘s release, with the cast and crew holding their cards close to their chest when it came to discussing the plot. Early trailers showed off a flashy blockbuster thriller and hinted at the existence of time travel. The mystique paid off, and as many suspected, Tenet is far more complex than its trailers let on.

Tenet is a dense sci-fi thriller about preventing a coming war from the future. The war hasn’t happened yet, but its effects are already being felt in the present as strange shrapnel finds its way into Tenet‘s world. This causes chaos for everyone the shrapnel — often shaped like a bullet — comes into contact with, sending time backwards.

To pick the shrapnel up, you need to have dropped them first. To fire a gun is to collect bullets with the trigger.

But it’s not just bullets leaking through the timeline, as John David Washington’s Protagonist soon learns. Somewhere in the world, there’s a man manufacturing these ‘inverted’ objects and sending them back through the timeline to sow the seeds for war.

It’s up to the Protagonist to destroy the operation and recover the linear timeline before it implodes.

tenet review
Image: Warner Bros. / Syncopy

Tenet leans into high concept espionage like Inception, but it also owes a lot to Nolan’s Memento by screwing with the audience’s perception and reality in the same way. It’s a multi-layered narrative you’ll need to watch twice to begin understanding, but one well worth it thanks to the strong performances, impressive cast and visually spectacular set pieces.

The further the Protagonist goes, the weirder his world becomes. While time travel is a common study for film and TV, Tenet chooses to focus on a strange, more scientific version of the concept and brings in the multi-world theory to explore alterations to reality.

It’s a very intriguing concept and you’ll need to pay attention to understand its complexity. But even if you don’t quite ‘get it’ there’s plenty to love about this stylish sci-fi thriller.

Tenet‘s focus on practical effects over VFX has been well publicised, and for good reason. Nolan’s attention to detail and commitment to polish is clear here, with multiple practical set pieces bringing a sense of realism and spectacle to the film. (Yes, they actually did crash a Jetliner during filming.) These intense sequences are found throughout the film and are immediately immersive and spectacular.

The other factor that’ll really suck you into Tenet is the artful music. With frequent Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer out for Tenet, the score was picked up by Ludwig Göransson (Venom, This is America, Black Panther). It’s a fantastic, booming soundtrack made more spectacular in an open cinema, adding a level of depth to the film’s action. If you’ve seen a Nolan film before, you’ll be familiar with the score here — it’s a soundtrack filled with plenty of tense strings and pulse-pounding drum beats to suck you in.

As Tenet evolves, actions unfold in a non-linear order. It consistently breaks your mind, but eventually the movie comes together until all the clues peppered throughout make sense at the very end in breathtaking fashion.

tenet review
Image: Warner Bros. / Syncopy

A lot of the heavy lifting work here is carried by John David Washington as the wide-eyed Protagonist. He’s a strong and charismatic lead, perfect for the hybrid thriller/action sci-fi drama of the film. He’s also joined by an enigmatic Robert Pattinson as operative Neil, a sinister Kenneth Branagh as the film’s pseudo-villain, and Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, who proves to be the linchpin of the film’s action. The casting choices here are excellent, with not a loose link among them.

Overall, it’s an impressive, tight achievement. Tenet’s high concept and non-linear nature may confuse some, it’s a deeply rewarding film with many secrets to uncover. It’s what you get when you pair one of the world’s most prolific modern filmmakers with a incredibly talented cast and a deep, well-thought-out concept.

The movie’s central ideas are intriguing and well-told. It’s easily one of 2020’s best and most interesting films, and comfortably one of Nolan’s greatest hits.

Tenet hits select Australian cinemas on Saturday, August 22. Check your local cinema times for more information.


  • Not sure what movie you watched… The movie I saw was half a movie of “protagonist goes to see person, person gives random exposition, then advises them to go see another person” for about one hour. It is a poorly written, poorly edited and very sloppy made film.

    Very disappointing comeback from Hollywood after the COVID 19 break. It’s almost incredible to think the same guy who did Memento, Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy, could’ve come up with something as bad as this film.

    There are a couple of unique action scenes based around the really dumb idea of inverted action, but the movie thinks it’s way smarter than it is.

    • I would say it’s anything but sloppy. It’s certainly a difficult film. But it’s not sloppy.
      It has major issues with audio, and the plot is grand and convoluted.
      I really enjoyed it, and 24 hours later I still can’t stop thinking about it.

      • Really? What part did you enjoy? The zero chemistry between any of the characters? The wooden poorly written dialogue which has almost no charisma behind it. The sloppy editing so when characters were talking its snapping back and forward between characters because they obviously had to cut hours of the film to make it fit? The sloppy sound mix which made it nearly impossible to hear half of the dialogue in the film? The poor plot that is based around one VERY simple concept that they managed to stretch out into a 3 hour movie.

        There is nothing difficult about the plot. It’s straight forward and simple.

        *spoiler warning*

        Future people invent a really stupid concept which inverts objects/people against the natural flow of time. Literally the first time we see the inverted fight scene in Oslo, if you’ve ever seen any basic time travel movie, it was obvious that it was the Protagonist (his characters name btw, another stupid part to the movie), and later in the film they were going to go “backwards” through the movie.

        This movie was so bad I nearly walked out of it. I only stuck around because I was curious to see if the plot would be as basic as I assumed it was. The part near the end when it was obvious the Blue team member who opened the lock for him was his side kick, and then he was going off to die, had almost zero emotion behind it. It was just like – oh who cares, these characters have had no personality the entire movie.

        Not even joking, I am envious of people that can enjoy a movie this bad. Would make life more enjoyable….I’m also confused by the people saying this movie warrants more than one viewing. What part of it didn’t people get? The boring predictable plot was the easiest part of the movie to understand. It was the poor everything else that was “difficult”.

        • I concur, this film is a gross disappointment to the Nolan empire.

          Terrible casting in Branagh & Washington, means the film is pulled along by overly convoluted theories that tend to bore rather intrigue. The script is delivered with such emotionless mumbling its largely unimportant to the plot.

          Scaled action sequences & enriched score are the only things going for this film. 4 / 10

  • I sat here reading the comments about this movie thinking to myself “How the fuck have you guys seen this already? Is it online somewhere that I don’t know about?” and then about 2 seconds later I realised the rest of the country isn’t completely locked the fuck down like we are. Feelsbadman 🙁

  • Your review is 100% correct. This is a film that needs to be watched a second, and maybe a third time, to absorb every little nuanced detail that may have been missed previously. Christopher Nolan is the master of conceptual film-making, and this effort is not to be missed.

    • I pity the person who would need to watch this basic, poorly written pile of trash a second or a third time. Go watch Dark if you want an amazingly written, directed and acted take on convoluted time travel. Not this tripe.

  • Just watched it. There’s something good there, but its hidden underneath some at times underwhelming directing and more importantly, absolutely terrible sound mixing.

    • The sound mixing in Tenet is abysmal to the point where I was worried it was the cinema I was in but I casual glance online shows I wasn’t alone.

      Nolan films have had this issue in the past but by far this is the worst offender.

      As for the film itself I definitely agree, it’s a good concept executed poorly, the pacing, lnaudible exposition dumps and paper thin characterisation hurt it. It doesn’t hold up as a follow up to the excellent Dunkirk.

      • There was a bit where I think they explained why the future wanted this war but I am not sure because I couldn’t make out anything they were saying. Unnecessarily convoluted and confusing but at least there was some good action sequences

  • I thought it was terrible. Just… so pretentious, so BADLY written. Non-sensical rubbish. The entire first 60mins all of the dialogue was pure exposition.

    I’m glad some people liked it but honestly, if you like spy flicks, The original Bourne film and Mission Impossible Fallout are a lot more crowd pleasing than this.

    • 100% agree. Nolan usually makes good movies with great believable characters who usually exist around a unique concept. This movie was he built the movie around the concept and the characters, plot, editing and everything else came after…..

  • I enjoyed the film. The sound mix seemed a bit off. The beginning felt too loud (although that might just be from not going to a cinema in almost half a year), and I definitely missed some of the dialog during the catamaran scene due to overwhelming background noise.

    It kind of felt like half the film was missing. That’ll be fine if Nolan returns to do a sequel, but he hasn’t shown much interest in sequels outside of the Batman films. Due to the rules of the world, Tenet would also be the last film in the series as well as the first.

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