There are hopes riding high for Christopher Nolan‘s Tenet, as his new Sci-fi-infused spy thriller is the first major film to be released in cinemas post-lockdown (at least, in the UK), and the director’s latest original, big-budget blockbuster after the success of Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk. It’s fantastic to witness such anticipation for an original film, but has Nolan struck gold with his latest effort, or does Tenet deserve to be “inverted” back in time?
Tenet follows unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington), who is given the mysterious assignment of saving the world from Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a man who can apparently communicate with the future. From there, the film gets a lot more complicated, but the central premise revolves around ‘Inversion’ – the ability to reverse time around you in order to achieve a particular goal. It’s a concept that Tenet struggles to explain through dialogue but, by the third act, the visual storytelling has allowed you to get your head around it – if only for things to get even more complicated.
Like most of Nolan’s filmography, for me, the characters aren’t hugely memorable but benefit from some terrific casting. The Protagonist isn’t particularly interesting on paper, but John David Washington infuses some much-needed charisma into the role – despite remaining nameless throughout. His accomplice Neil is probably the standout of the film, thanks to Robert Pattinson‘s slightly camp dry-wit, whilst Elizabeth Debicki delivers a powerful performance in the otherwise thankless role of Kat, the film’s ‘Bond girl’. Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Michael Caine and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are all strong in supporting roles, but perhaps the most surprising performance of the film comes from Kenneth Branagh as Sator, whose subdued performance occasionally gives way to that of a terrifying madman. Sator is Nolan’s most interesting villain since The Dark Knight‘s Joker, but still lacks a truly iconic element to make him stand out against a plethora of Russian spy-film villains – Branagh himself having already played another in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
There’s no denying that Tenet isn’t a character-focused film though, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The screenplay often feels unnecessarily convoluted, and unlike Inception – where the concepts and narrative are unveiled gradually and efficiently – Tenet often becomes quite confusing. Having said that, this isn’t all set-up and no pay-off, and does return to particular story-beats to resolve some of the loose ends in interesting ways – that is if you’re able to follow them. I do feel that stronger characterisation would have helped the film to overcome its convoluted plotting. Inception is rooted in Dom’s grief and his longing to return to home, while the only emotional hook Tenet offers is that Debicki’s Kat wants to see her son again (whom is kept almost entirely off-screen) in an underdeveloped plot-thread that feels more symbolic than emotional.
Nolan’s strength has always been in making great-looking films though, and for Tenet he re-teams with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema to make the best-looking blockbuster of 2020 so far; I watched the film in 15/70mm IMAX, and the film looked stunning. I’d already praised Tenet‘s prologue, but the full film is well worth the wait for IMAX fans. Shot on a combination of 70mm and IMAX film cameras, there are some truly incredible moments throughout. All of the big set-pieces are shot in this manner – meaning that the aspect ratio expands to fill an entire IMAX screen – allowing you to really get the sense of scale when the Protagonist and Neil are bungee-jumping off a building, or when they approach Sator’s huge yacht in Italy, or even a time-bending fight sequence against masked men from the future. While the 70mm scenes look great, the IMAX scenes have such a terrific level of detail, and the expanded aspect ratio makes the film so much more immersive. The sound mix also benefits from the experience, whether it be Ludwig Göransson‘s pulsating electronic score or the ocean crashing against boats. If there is a definitive way to see Tenet, IMAX is the way to go – especially if you can get a 15/70mm ticket.
Saying all this, it’s difficult to talk about Tenet without revealing important spoilers, but suffice to say it’s worth seeing at the cinema – and definitely not on a smartphone. Christopher Nolan has created an interesting twist on the familiar spy thriller, and while the complex ideas may be overwhelming, there is something to be said about the experience of watching Tenet. It’s a film that demands your focus and attention, and while it may be a bit too convoluted for its own good, it’s bolstered by a terrific cast, some incredible location filming and some great action sequences. Tenet may not be the saviour of cinema, but it’s great to return to the big screen with a film as engaging as this.