When it comes to Christopher Nolan, I am an apologist towards him as I champion his ambition in crafting big-budgeted blockbusters that are technically-brilliant whilst being driven by ideas. Look no further than the ten-year-old Inception, a sci-fi actioner that focused on a heist taking place within a person’s subconscious through their dreams, which as many people has pointed out that it is an allegory on filmmaking itself. Every new Christopher Nolan film is an event and considering his latest feature was delayed numerous times due to a certain pandemic, is the wait for Tenet worth it?
As always with Nolan, there isn’t much to go on in terms of plot through the trailers and although there were rumors about this having some narrative link with Inception, which are now debunked, Tenet does follow a familiar formula. Recruited into a secret organization and given only the word “tenet” that will open both the right and wrong doors for his mission, the CIA agent credited only as “Protagonist” (John David Washington) must manipulate time in order to prevent World War III by stopping the Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh).
By this point in his career, Nolan is in a position to do whatever he wants, especially after the accolades for his 2017 war film Dunkirk. Given his affection for the James Bond franchise that is evoked throughout his work, it is no surprise the director once again plugnes into the world of espionage while applying a sci-fi twist. Considering the Bond movies often have a mixture of grit and glamour – especially in the later ones – Nolan often removes the fat from those movies. The humor and sexiness that has defined the franchise is gone, whilst maintaining the super-spy acrobatics featuring men in nice suits, albeit told through a grounded leanness.
Whatever attempt of humor there is in Tenet, it is through the charisma of its two leads: John David Washington’s Protagonist and Robert Pattinson’s Neil. We may not know much in terms of their backstory, but they both have snappy dialogue that they can bounce back at one another, as well as everyone. Going back to Nolan’s Bond fandom, Tenet leans into it too much through its villain’s plot as Kenneth Branagh is playing a harsher version of his Russian antagonist from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Although the comparisons between Tenet and Inception are there, where the latter succeeds more than the former is the emotional arc. The Protagonist is our way into the world of spies and time manipulation, and although the film sets up an emotional attachment between him and Andrei’s estranged wife (played terrifically by Elizabeth Debicki), there is still an air of mystery to his character. Plus, due to the constant movement of plot, rarely do we get the breather to really get those deep interactions. As much as people have complained about the coldness in Nolan’s films, this is definitely the case here.
Time, specifically the fragmentation of it, is a recurring theme in Nolan’s filmography and with Tenet, his approach to this idea is more ambitious and can get confusing. Without going into too much detail, a number of characters can allow objects to have their entropy reversed and move background through time. Nolan – with his preference for using practical effects – creates some jaw-dropping set-pieces that do feel like the best magic tricks. You’re left wondering how they did them. Although you can pretty much understand the broad strokes of the narrative, the strategic use of time manipulation can leave your head scratching, and as a two-and-a-half-hour thinker’s piece, it can be too much.