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 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.
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.