Released: 26th August
Seen: 22th August (Advance screening)
2020 is the year that the act of going to a cinema became a distant memory. Something we did in the before times when the world wasn’t battling against one of the worst plagues we’ve ever had with the worst leadership imaginable helping to make it considerably worse. Throughout this year we’ve seen film after film push back to next year when, hopefully, we’ll be able to go outside without any fear again. One film that refused to push back till next year, or bite the bullet and go to VOD, was Tenet. Christopher Nolan absolutely insisted that his film be seen in a cinema no matter what, adamant that this film be the one to get people back to the cinema. Now that it’s come out, I can honestly say that while it’s good it probably didn’t NEED to be the first thing in cinemas.
Tenet is another Nolan film where a bunch of men in expensive well-tailored suits work together to prevent some upcoming crisis that involves a strange visually interesting bit of inexplicable weirdness. In this film’s case, the inexplicable weirdness is that something is sending weapons back in time, causing them to act in reverse so instead of firing a gun, the bullets are already in a wall and fly backwards back into the chamber of the gun. It’s hard to explain in text, the movie spells it out visually really easily. It’s up to The Protagonist (John David Washington) to do what he can to stop this from happening and prevent world war three… and yes, they literally named the main character ‘The Protagonist’.
For a film that spent so long hiding what it was about, the plot of Tenet is kind of simplistic. It’s a spy thriller with the world potentially ending that involves an arms dealer and his abused wife, the only complication is this gimmick where the film plays backwards and forwards at the same time. Other than that the plot plays all the hits, with our protagonist sneaking in somewhere to get information, planning a heist to get an important document, almost being killed by the bad guy, all the hits that one would really expect from a spy thriller except occasionally someone falls on the remote and rewinds something in the film.
That rewinding gimmick seemingly is the only thing Tenet really cares about because it goes to great lengths to make sure you get what’s going on and why it’s happening, trying to explain it over and over again. Put simply, the backwards world thing could be explained in the same way one would explain the time travel in Endgame… by screaming “MAGIC SCIENCE” and moving on. In general it’s a visual gimmick that’s meant to elevate the movie above the spy thriller genre that Tenet clearly belongs in, except it doesn’t elevate it at all because the gimmick is only occasionally visually interesting and certainly doesn’t feel like it’s essential to the plot.
To make the very obvious Inception comparison (because Inception and this film share SO many things), the big gimmick in Inception is intrinsically linked to the main plot. Inception’s plot is all about a bunch of criminals trying to plant an idea into someone’s mind, therefore you need to use a lot of dream imagery but… Tenet is a simple spy thriller with some cool visuals and that’s genuinely it, or at least that’s how it felt on first viewing.
There’s an argument to be made that Tenet will potentially improve on multiple viewings, though most of those are probably best done on a home theatre where you’re able to take in the details and possibly even put on subtitles to catch all the dialogue that’s coming at you from all corners.
Those visuals are genuinely impressive though, let’s be clear on that. Things like the airplane crash (which was apparently done with a real plane) or the backwards-forwards car chase are certainly spectacles to behold. The fight choreography is incredible, especially for a particular hand to hand combat scene where one person is going forwards in time while the other person is going backwards in time.
You can really see where the love went in this film, trying to put these ideas on screen… now, granted, they will probably still work fine on a home theatre system where you aren’t risking going out into a pandemic to see it (hell, I only go to the cinema lately because luckily my state hasn’t had a major outbreak yet) but they are certainly fun to watch. The biggest visual trick is that airplane crash and the spectacle of that is definitely going to play on your TV at home.
Oh, I almost forgot about the performances… they’re fine. They’re fine. Certainly none of them leap out as memorable characters, possibly because that’s not what the central focus of this movie is, but everyone here does a fine job. Robert Pattinson might be the one who actually gets the most to play with here, he has the most memorable lines and a character that does stand out from the pack. The entire film really leans on John David Washington’s charm just to carry us through some of the more confusing bits and he’s fine, he does a really good job of carrying the movie. Other than that… again, fine. Everyone here is fine.
For a film that was meant to usher everyone back to the cinemas, Tenet is a fine movie that I will probably rewatch on DVD when it comes out but I doubt I’ll be thinking about it much after that. At the end of the day it’s a spy thriller with a fun visual gimmick, it doesn’t need to be much more than that but the hype built it up to be a lot more than that. It’s certainly enjoyable, though if you want to fully understand every single nuance of the film you’re going to want to wait till you can have it at home with subtitles and a vat of coffee so you don’t relax for a second.
Tenet is a film that is really good and I like it, it’s just not Nolan’s finest work (I’d put it behind Inception and The Dark Knight, maybe even behind Dunkirk) and it suffers from trying to look as complex as it possibly can because then you’ll try to study it for years like you did with Inception but it’s still fun. Can’t see why it had to be released right now, it could’ve probably waited a little bit till things were safer and it actually had a chance of breaking even at the box office but… yeah, Christopher Nolan made a film that is fun to watch which is to be expected at this point.