No, Tenet is not the saviour of cinema as many have deemed it in recent months. True, it is the first blockbuster of the dilapidated summer season due to the restrictions in place due to COVID-19 but being monikered as the saving grace of the multiplexes is a little too easy, despite the desperate need for cinemas around the world to re-energise business after a horrible few months.
This is, after all, just another movie but such is Christopher Nolan’s currency right now that it has become an even bigger event than first anticipated. Should you see it at the cinema on the big screen? Of course, but only if you feel comfortable doing so. There are larger things happening than heading into the darkened auditoriums we love to so much. But if you do, prepare for a treat. A mad, whirlwind, baffling, spectacular treat.
As with most of Nolan’s films thus far, to say much about the plot would be unkind but in Tenet’s case, it’s impossible on some levels given the nature of the story for, on first viewing at least, it is a bit of a brainteaser. What we can say is this: John David Washington is recruited by a secret organisation who have been tasked to stop World War III, set to be incited by Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). But while the threat of a new war is serious, the means to wage it are slightly askew from the norm, for this war may have already taken place. Read into that what you will.
Ever the theatrical showman, Nolan has painted on big canvasses before but Tenet is his biggest yet, and given his previous outings as director, that is saying something. Immersing himself in the IMAX and film world, he has outdone himself here with another spectacular piece of cinema that encompasses much of the world. Taking his cues – again – from the world of James Bond (he counts The Spy Who Loved Me a big influence here), this is an energetic, thoughtful but exhilarating espionage thriller that allows him to bring all of his filmmaking talents together for another sprawling epic.
What separates Tenet from all the other films by our director is that, well, it’s all rather confusing: we stuck with him through the time-loops of Memento, the dreams-within-dreams of Inception and the twists and turns of The Prestige but despite its grandness, this one will take one if not two repeat viewings to quite comprehend what’s going on here. It’s no bad thing, really, as Nolan wants nothing else than to talk to the audience on his level and not down to them and, as such, his smarts are always many steps ahead of his rivals.
However, there is a lot to digest here – most of it very important – and while its grandiose style is hard to ignore, its inner workings, ironically, need more time to really crystalise in our heads. Listen to us, criticising a smart, thought-provoking filmmaker for being smart and thought-provoking.
Across the board, his supporting players are exemplary, bar a few bum notes: Washington is brilliant in the lead role as our protagonist through all the mayhem while Elizabeth Debicki continues her rise to super-stardom; but Branagh’s over-operatic turn as the film’s antagonist, while watchable, is played just a little too erratic to truly terrify. It’s upcoming Dark Knight Robert Pattinson who steals the film as Neil (yep, just Neil), Washington’s accomplice through the time mazes with charisma, charm, and cheek that lays down a gauntlet for anyone looking for a potential 007 down the line.