Spoiler-Free Tenet Review
Is it Labor Day? No? So why is the biggest film of 2020 opening on a random Monday in August? Because Christopher Nolan cares not for your concept of time!
by Hope Madden and George Wolf
A not-at-all funny thing happened to the movie calendar this year. And now, instead of kicking off the summer blockbuster season with a bang, the stakes for Tenet are a wee bit higher: rescue movie theaters.
As you may have heard, writer/director Christopher Nolan has been adamant that this film be experienced in theaters. He’s not wrong.
Tenet is a sensory-battering experience, one not to be paused or downsized. The ideas are big, the visuals are full of wide-eyed wonders, and the persistent mind-bending immediately invites second helpings (maybe more).
An agent known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) is introduced to technology that has the power to invert time. Time travel? Sorry, that’s Bill & Ted kid stuff. We’re talking the ability to move forward in a space where everything else is moving backward.
Nolan is returning to a familiar playground that manipulates time and reality. From Leonard looping through a constant present tense in Memento to Cobb forever bumping into his own past in his attempts to shift the future in Inception, back to The Prestige, forward to Interstellar and again to the braided timelines of Dunkirk, Nolan is a filmmaker who orchestrates universes by playing with time and consequence.
In Tenet, the future is talking to the past, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. To put things right, our Protagonist and a mysterious partner named Neil (Robert Pattinson) must gain the trust of a high-end art dealer (Elizabeth Debicki) on the way to taking down her Russian arms dealer husband (Kenneth Branagh) who’s thinking bigger than Thanos.
A dialog heavy first half benefits primarily from the oily charm and sly humor of Pattinson’s character, whose arc is made more fun and more interesting by the way the film loops its realities. As elegant as always, Debicki exists to give the film a truly human character, which is to say, one whose behavior is too often (and too conveniently) impetuous.
The film’s biggest drawbacks are some cliched dialogue and its tendency to present itself as a SciFi James Bond movie with well-dressed characters popping up in gorgeous locales to impressively (and too conveniently) offer well-timed information. (Washington does impress as a potential Bond, though.)
The two-and-a-half-hour running time is not a concern, because once we hit the midpoint, Nolan (with a big assist from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and stunt coordinator George Cottle) decide we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Past and present collide in some of the most interesting, tense and downright fun action sequences Nolan’s ever put together—and fan or not, that’s a feat to acknowledge.
That’s merely a summary that doesn’t require a physics degree, but as Nolan’s own screenplay admits, “Don’t try to understand it.” We’re back to big screens, baby, let’s make it count!