Tenet (2020)TWITTER/THR

Christopher Nolan returns once again with a cocktail of spy, heist, and sci-fi ingredients that guarantees the head-scratching hangover we’ve all come to know and love. The film, which may be best described as Inception’s “in-law”, features John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki in an action-packed treatise on the oddities of time, promising to present as many questions as answers by the end credits. From the characteristically imaginative twists on science, to the obligatory Michael Caine appearance, Tenet bears all the beloved hallmarks of a conceptually ambitious and brain-racking Nolan feature. And, although it misses the mark in a few departments, Tenet nevertheless represents Nolan’s bold (and welcome) return to the big screen.


Tenet puts us in the shoes of a CIA agent only known as “The Protagonist” (Washington). He’s introduced to “time-inversion”, a phenomenon whereby inexplicable forms of radiation have allowed certain objects to have their entropy inverted. Such objects can move backwards in time, as demonstrated when inversion scientist Laura (Clémence Poésy) invites the Protagonist to pull the trigger of an unloaded pistol. Like hitting rewind on a cassette player, a bullet dislodges from its target and thrusts backwards into the empty chamber. Perplexed, the Protagonist then sets out to uncover the secrets behind this mysterious phenomenon. Arms-dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia) points him to Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). With the help of fellow operative Neil (Pattinson), the Protagonist cajoles Sator’s wife Kat (Debicki), inching closer to Sator before uncovering his true, nefarious plans.

“Ostensibly, Tenet doesn’t just capture your attention - it demands it.”


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Though the plot may sound simple, Tenet is anything but dull. Non-linear storytelling marries gratuitous exposition to flesh out Tenet’s deceptively straightforward story, and even the most devoted viewers may find themselves struggling to keep up with important developments. Tenet’s complicated time-inverting mechanics are also largely unpacked the same way, and the film can feel rather impatient with the relentless information overload from time-inversion lectures. Ostensibly, Tenet doesn’t just capture your attention - it demands it. Without pulling your weight, it’s far too easy to get lost in the film’s narrative (and temporal) maze.


Consequently, Tenet can feel like more of an invitation to decipher its various conceptual enigmas, rather than a profound evaluation of its novel ideas and their ramifications. Much of the deeper thematic debate hides between the lines, and the film can feel rather nonchalant about reflecting on its own ideas more meaningfully. Notably, Nolan reiterates the impact of time-inversion on “free will” across Tenet’s 150-minute runtime. However, he does so fleetingly, and “free will” never truly feels like a sustained thematic anchor. Tenet may have intended to explore the human capacity for independent choice in a temporally distorted world, but it leaves something more to be desired. Ultimately, any thematic discussion is overshadowed by the nature of time-inversion itself, and Tenet would much rather have us wrestle with its complexities than ponder over its consequences.

“The result is a gripping and immersive experience that’s as heart-pounding as it is mind-numbing.”

That said, Nolan’s work isn’t just about solving the puzzles of time-inversion – there’s also plenty of spectacle to behold. The movie brims with grand set pieces and action sequences, bolstered by Nolan’s preference for practical over computer-generated effects. Deserving of mention is a hallway fight between the Protagonist and an “inverted” masked assailant, reminiscent of the gravity-defying hotel lobby fight in 2010’s Inception. Combating an enemy who’s in inverse-time is unlike anything else, and the unique choreography and fight design is definitely one to commend. These tense moments of action are further punctuated by the film’s pulsating soundtrack, composed by acclaimed producer Ludwig Göransson. The result is a gripping and immersive experience that’s as heart-pounding as it is mind-numbing.


Of course, a film is lifeless without its cast, with its members bringing individual personalities to the table that are distinctive, yet mutually complementary. Washington’s stoicism as the Protagonist neatly accompanies Pattinson’s calm and effortlessly cool portrayal of Neil, and, though the pair develop a bond that’s not quite the brotherly camaraderie the film makes it out to be, the result is still fairly palpable. The real winner, however, is Debicki’s Kat, the battered and estranged wife of Sator. Held hostage by a tyrannical, self-centred husband, Debicki’s remarkable performance astutely captures the pain, despair and rage, stemming from the struggles of marital entrapment.


Though polished in its own right, Tenet doesn’t quite achieve the delicate balance of conceptual refinement and narrative clarity of its “in-law”. But that’s not to say the film isn’t any good: beyond the brilliant action sequences and stellar performances, Nolan certainly pushes his creative boundaries further than in previous outings – an ambition which is mostly realised. Where Tenet falters is in the loquacious script required to make sense of his rekindled imagination, sacrificing much needed clarity and thematic depth. The upshot is a film that represents Nolan’s welcome, albeit imperfect, return to cinema.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For anyone determined enough, there’s definitely an enticing challenge to grasp the full palindromic puzzle behind Tenet. But, ultimately, although the pay-off might be worthwhile for many, I’ve personally found that the best advice comes from the film itself: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”


Tenet is out in theatres now.