Tenet represents one of Christopher Nolan’s most fascinating projects and at the same time being one of his biggest failures.
The latter isn’t due to anything that plays out over the course of the film. It’s from Nolan’s insistence in cashing in all his sway and influence with Warner Bros. to push his latest blockbuster to theaters in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
Tenet was never going to be the film that saved the movie theaters, but it could have been the desperately needed highly anticipated blockbuster to drive audiences to subscribe to Warner Bros.’ HBO Max streaming service. Put bluntly, Tenet would have been the heavily buzzed about film that Wonder Woman 1984 should have been.
Instead, Tenet will be a cautionary tale of a filmmaker letting his ego get in the way of properly reading the moment and confusing himself as the protagonist of the story.
A number of critics have summed up Tenet as Nolan revisiting the changing physics principles concept he introduced in Inception. There’s some validity to that assessment, but I’d argue this is Nolan once again showing his love of James Bond films.
Previously, Nolan called On Her Majesty’s Secret Service his favorite Bond film. Ironically, in 2020 Nolan listed The Spy He Loved Me as one of his 30 favorite films instead. While Inception and other Nolan films might have echoes and homages to 007, Tenet feels the most like Nolan’s take on the Bond franchise with a sprinkle of Memento for some extra flavor.
An unnamed former CIA agent (John David Washington, BlackKklansman) gets recruited to take part in a daring mission to stop Sator (Kenneth Branagh) a Russian oligarch from unleashing World War III. Sator’s method for triggering this war involves some highly unique materials unlike anything the agent has seen.
The agent’s best method for stopping Sator is through his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, Widows), who’s desperate to leave their loveless marriage.
With the fate of the world at stake, the agent has only a gesture and a hand sign to uncover allies like the mysterious Neil (Robert Pattinson, Good Time), arms dealer Sanjay (Denzil Smith) and his wife, Priya (Dimple Kapadia) and a soldier (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Avengers: Age of Ultron).
In true Bond fashion, the agent starts traveling the world in his efforts to track Sator and derail his plans. More details venture into spoiler territory so that’s it in terms of any plot specifics. Nolan wrote and directed Tenet and its one of his strongest efforts on both fronts.
Nolan films feel like a fully matured Michael Bay, who didn’t settle on making easy action blockbusters. Sometimes Nolan gets too cerebral for his own good. When he remembers to include some fun along with his intricately shot and staged projects, the results make for thrilling cinematic escapes that don’t feel nearly as long as their run time.
Tenet features some impressive action scenes thanks to the film’s big gimmick. Again, I’d rather not spoil it for those who missed the trailers so I’ll just say the execution is key and Nolan pulls it off better than can be expected.
Washington is quickly establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s incendiary talents. He seems poised to be an annual player on the awards circuit already. It was incredibly refreshing seeing Washington as the lead here as so often black actors get the secondary lead/cool supporting role in these types of blockbusters. Especially when the director/writer is not a black creator.
Nolan’s savvy casting proves fortuitous as Washington commands the screen in every scene as he proves an adaptable Bond-like hero. Washington has Roger Moore’s playfulness, the suaveness of Pierce Brosnan, the physicality of Daniel Craig and the special charisma of Sean Connery. He’s got less than 10 film roles on his resume yet it’s impressive to note how Washington keeps getting better with each film. Hopefully this results in more lead action roles of this blockbuster quality.
Pattinson has sneakily become a very versatile and tremendous performer, who deserves more to be written off as the Twilight guy. He plays the mysterious character with many secrets well and exuding his star presence in small doses.
Debicki simply hasn’t had a bad performance yet and this is one of her more challenging roles that demands an inner strength while being under the thumb of a monster. Branagh was a big get for Nolan and he brings full on Bond megalomaniac villain vibes constantly. Nolan has gotten better about having a more diverse cast and it’s cool seeing Himesh Patel (The Aeronauts) in a role as one of Neil’s allies that would traditionally just go to a nondescript actor for a character that just as easily works with a POC performer.
Some viewers might find the film hard to follow as characters discuss the movie physics, but it all comes together and doesn’t fall apart logically n the final act. For some it might be helpful to rewatch to fully get it, but if you’re paying attention it shouldn’t be too inaccessible.
Tenet feels like Nolan is back on his epic blockbuster mode again. While it didn’t prove the cure all for getting audiences back into theaters it should be immensely satisfying for viewers willing to invest the time. Even if they need to wind it back for a second viewing to fully appreciate.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures