Tenet review – ambitiously entertaining tangled time-travel caper

“All I have a word for you: Tenet. It will open the right doors…”

Tenet is the word that cinemas are counting on when reopening their doors post-Lockdown. 

It has been touted as the film that would single-handedly save the cinema industry. The question is can the “saviour of cinema” Christopher Nolan’s latest film possibly live up to the hype and responsibility?

Well, Yes and No.

Is it a film worth seeing on the biggest screen you can find? (If you are comfortable going back to the cinema at this time). Absolutely. This is filmmaking on the grandest scale in terms of scope, technique and ambition. “In Nolan we trust” is the phrase his adoring fans use and you can trust Nolan to deliver what is his most Nolan-esque film yet. 

However that proves to be both a blessing and a curse.

Tenet, for the longest time shrouded in secrecy, follows the Protagonist who enters the shadowy world of espionage in order to prevent the end of the world through the manipulation of time.

Nolan has never been one to spoonfeed his audiences. Whether it is Leonard’s unreliable memories in Memento or Inception’s multi-level dreamscapes, there has always been the expectation of people to pay attention to his plots. The Prestige literally opens with “Are you watching closely?”.

Yet here there is so much talk of time inversion: reverse entropies and temporal pincer movements, that one might need a degree in physics to understand. Luckily Robert Pattinson’s sidekick Neil (yes, the secondary lead character in the biggest movie of the summer is named Neil) just so happens to have one, so is one up on the audience.

Another character tells the Protagonist “Don’t think about it. Feel it”. One half expects Basil Exposition to turn up and look down the camera Austin Powers-style and say “I say don’t worry about this sort of thing and just enjoy yourself. That goes for you all too”.

Austin Powers itself was a parody of the Bond franchise and now the talk of Nolan ever directing a Bond film can finally be put to rest, because Tenet is his Bond – in particular You Only Live Twice, in all but name. It features a protagonist experienced in espionage who must investigate a shadowy organisation to help stop a Russian bad guy from causing the end of the world, all the while becoming emotionally entangled with the bad guy’s estranged wife.

In thematic terms however, the franchise that this film most closely feels akin to is, bizarrely, Doctor Who.

It is not time travel. It is not even Inception. It is Inversion. The ability for objects and people to travel backwards in time whilst the rest of the world moves forward. The Tenth Doctor probably summed it up best with the term “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff”.

Much like the magicians in The Prestige, Nolan looks to distract from any confusion over the plot by employing a fantastic cast of actors to deliver on the story’s potential.

John David Washington is full of smoothness and swagger as The Protagonist and this cements his position as a star on the rise following BlackKklansman. Ably supported by Robert Pattinson returning to the post-Twilight world of blockbusters following his recent run of A24 classics and is supremely effective as the aloof, mysterious but charismatic Neil. All done while apparently stealing Nolan’s wardrobe for his costume design. Elizabeth Debicki does her best with what could have been another underwritten female role in the Nolan-verse but if there is a weak link, it is Branagh’s villain. Far too often it errs to the side of ham. In a film based around time inversion, have we regressed to the late eighties/nineties? To the time when every foreign bad guy was played by a Brit with a questionable accent?

Whilst the film suffers from common faults with his other films; lacklustre female characters and overcomplicated plots, one area where he truly excels in his final act.

Here he attempts one of the most ambitious and technically challenging action sequences of recent years. Discussing the ins and outs of it would threaten the dreaded *spoiler warning*. Suffice to say that it must have been an editor’s worst nightmare. It is a thrilling spectacle and what the big screen experience was made for. All driven forwards (or is that backwards) by Ludwig Goransson’s pulsating score.

On a first watch of Tenet, the tangled pile of plot threads may look like a jumbled mess, but as everything starts to come together in a frenetic final act, they slowly weave together into a fabulously bold and entertaining tapestry that will demand repeat viewing, analysis and appreciation. Just don’t go pulling at any of the individual threads too hard!

Tenet is in cinemas now.

Dallas King

Dallas is a former cinema manager and 35mm projectionist who swapped the popcorn for the pen and became a film critic. He is a contributor to Outtake Magazine, Festivals Editor for Flickfeast and co-host of the Filibuster and The A24 Project podcasts on The Nerd Party.