Movie review: Is Tenet a masterpiece or just a waste of time?
Only time will tell…
Tenet dropped in UAE cinemas on August 26, so we’re coming to this review about a week late. Or is it a week early? Since entering the cinema earlier today to watch the film, time seems much less of a reliable constant.
This is British director, Christopher Nolan’s tenth full-length feature and, in keeping with the subject matter it deals with, it’s arrived at the right time.
A stitch in time
The global pandemic had shut down both movie production and cinema screens across the world for months, and Tenet was scheduled to spearhead the grand return of big-budget blockbusters, to get posteriors back on (socially distant) cinema seats.
It was a bit of a risk, despite Nolan’s outstanding box office track record and the film’s bankable leads (John David Washington and Robert Pattinson), Tenet has a complicated plot that deliberately tears-up timelines, and gives you little respite to process what you’ve just seen.
But if you stick with it, let go of the question ‘why?’ (although we advise trying to keep a loose grip on ‘when?’) — and this could very well turn out to be one of the best films you watch this year.
Back to the start
(May contain some small spoilers)
The movie begins with an unnamed CIA agent (Washington) who, following a ‘successfully failed’ mission, is tasked with preventing a third World War, which may or may not be fought against our future selves.
His initial investigations uncover art forgeries; bullets that appear to flow backward through time, care of something the film casually refers to as ‘reverse entropy’; arms dealers apparently communicating with the future; and the existence of mysterious coveted artefacts.
Confused? That’s OK. Things do genuinely start becoming clearer after a few timeline handbrake turns.
Towards the end of the movie, as the main protaganists are strategising for a final push to save humanity, mention is made of a ‘temporal pincer’ movement — and that is a crucial (and in our opinion deliberately-dropped) framework for understanding the structure of the movie. Inversion.
Action, camera, lights
This isn’t Nolan’s first experiment with non-linear timelines, his 2000 cult classic Memento (which is apparently getting a reboot at some point in the not too distant future), is eye-twitchingly incongurous and leaves the viewer in a state of almost complete bewildermeent until the movie’s final scene.
Like Tenet, Memento was a huge success critically, but left audiences divided. If you head to the cinema for the sort of mindless escapism you can really set a popcorn chewing rhythm to — you’re unlikely to give it a full five stars.
Nolan wants you to put in a shift. The non-linearity of the story isn’t just a gimmick to confound, it’s there both as an important part of the narrative and a mechanism for layering it.
And Tenet has some huge action sequences, frantic fight scenes, a spectacular car chase (twice), and a heist where the vehicle of choice is a jumbo jet.
But the art of Tenet is in the cerebral lunging it forces you to do. There are the strong performances of Washington and Pattinson, and from Kenneth Branagh who plays Russian antagonist Andrei Sator, alongside his emotional hostage of a wife (Elizabeth Debicki) to consider too; then there’s the completely original, highly nuanced story; and breathtaking visual set-pieces.
There is also immense value to be found in the smug self-satisfaction of saying ‘I got it’. Even if you’re desperate to go and watch it for a second time just to ‘get it’ a little bit more. Which we will most certainly be doing.
Safe and sound
Many people have complained about the sound mixing in Tenet. And it’s true that sometimes the dialogue can be a little hard to follow, whilst seemingly irrelevant atmospheric noises are curiously given top billing.
It’s a criticism that’s followed Nolan ever since the The Dark Knight Rises — where Tom Hardy’s portrayal of arch Batman villain Bane was vocalised by an (almost comical at times) muffled mumble.
But it seems that sound is just another element that Nolan likes to play with, helping to add texture to our experience. In an interview with the The Hollywood Reporter following the release of Interstellar, he talked about deliberately using sound in “bold and adventurous ways”.
And it didn’t spoil the movie for us. This work that stitches together the cascading multi-dimensionalism of Inception and Interstellar, the bleak brinksmanship of Dunkirk, the jaded hero themes of The Dark Knight trilogy, and the sheer ‘wait, what-ery?’ of Memento.
Verdict: It’s up there with Nolan’s best, a master(time)piece. 4.5/5
Run time: 2hrs 30mins, PG13, at cinemas across the UAE now, book your tickets at whatson.ae/cinema