Four Star Rating: ***½
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Producers: Emma Thomas & Christopher Nolan
Music by: Ludwig Goransson
Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
Editor: Jennifer Lame
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Genre: Science Fiction/Action/Thriller
Rated: PG (Ontario)/PG-13 (United States) - Violence, Coarse Language
Release Date: August 26, 2020 (Canada/UK)/September 3, 2020 (US)
Run Time: 150 minutes
For the first time in my movie going life, I spent a summer without an army of giant special effects-fueled events ruling the movie theatres. Of course, there weren't any movie theatres open this summer forcing movie studios to push all their tentpoles to a later date. Netflix capitalized on the dearth of blockbusters by releasing their own versions with big stars attached like the Charlize Theron starring The Old Guard and the Jamie Fox superhero actioner Project Power. Despite all the hype around these movies, they felt like mid-budget fillers destined for the end of August if they would have been released in movie theatres during a healthy summer blockbuster season. In a year where many are starved for big special effects extravaganzas, Christopher Nolan's Tenet delivers the much-missed spectacle and grandeur of a big screen event.
The best thing about Tenet is its bold declaration that it must be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best sound system. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema delivers big sweeping shots of the various global locales to make every scene feel epic. Ludwig Goransson pounds out a score that rattles your bones and adds tension to the big action sequences. Nolan has many thrilling big moments like the opening scene of a rescue operation at an opera, a heist with an explosive plane crash, fight sequences that use how-do-they-pull-this off special effects and one of the most grip-your-seat immersive car-chases in years. It all meshes into Nolan's James Bond-like spy thriller locked into a Rubik's cube style sci-fi puzzle.
Nolan has dealt with the concept of time in most of his previous movies by exploring how the past can affect our future, how time can be manipulated and even how the present redefines the past. So, it was inevitable he'd eventually tackle actual time travel, though in typical Nolan fashion he creates the illusion it is grounded in real science to legitimize his fantasy. While J.J. Abrams is known for the 'mystery box' style of storytelling where the story has secrets and twists piled on each other, Nolan takes as much pleasure hiding things from the viewer until slowly revealing the twists and surprises as the movie unfolds.
John David Washington plays an unnamed CIA agent that is credited as the Protagonist who learns of a secret group called Tenet who not only know how to time travel but about time inversion where an object or even human can move backwards through time. This allows for some cool special effects sequences like a person in current time battling someone inversed, a high speed chase with reversed cars and a building that is both exploding and building up at the same time. This also means there are large stretches of expository dialogue to try to explain and set-up the concept, though Nolan being a very visual director creates sweeping backgrounds or special effects moments like inverted bullets being shot back into the gun during these explanation sequences.
There is also the issue that Nolan is far more interested in plot and the sci-fi concepts than crafting characters that we care about thus making it an intriguing visual spectacle that can be hard to get emotionally attached. The main drive of the narrative is the Protagonist trying to find and eventually stop a nasty Russian arms dealer, Andrei Salor (played by Kenneth Branagh) who is not only illegally selling inverted bullets but has a device that can destroy all life that he intends to use. The first portion of the film is Washington's character bouncing from different sources and creating various relationships without any clear motivation or reasons for certain character reactions or responses. It all feels emotionally detached and full of actions for the purpose to keep the plot moving.
I love a great time travel story and the world here is very intriguing, but at times it feels needlessly convoluted. The big action sequences and massive visual scope immerses you into the story and is enough for you not to be distracted by some unanswered questions that you are bound to have when you finish watching. The movie is filled with time paradoxes and contradictions, but to its credit, it openly admits to them in the movie dialogue and embraces anything that one could challenge as a plot hole.
The actors do a lot to draw you in where in the script may fail. Washington follows the lead of his father by being a true movie star that commands the screen. He comes off confident, assured and strong, and you believe this is a hero that is worth rooting on. Robert Pattinson swaggers in as his ally that at times you question if you can trust, but that is all the part of the fun for movies like this. Pattinson and Washington have a strong chemistry that makes you believe these are men that have grown into close friends. Elizabeth Debicki rises above any damsel in distress that she could have been as the trapped wife to the villain, and comes off as strong, confident and smart despite deep emotional bruises. Branagh goes all in as a salivating brutish villain that you are destined to despise (and loving doing it). The Branagh performance is enough to make for a villain that is far more memorable than most of the baddies populating the MCU and is the great antagonist to the Protagonist.
Tenet boldly delivers the big, special effects laden event movie that has been denied us all summer. Nolan doesn't hold your hand but tosses you into a weaving sci-fi time traveling universe and commands that you stay focused and immersed the entire time. This isn't Nolan's most thoughtful, emotional or satisfying movie, but this is exactly the movie we needed to open up the movie theatres again. I am not going to tell anyone they need to go to the movie theatres, and I can understand why anyone would rather stay home, but if you do want to venture out, this will justify why movie theatre-going shouldn't be lost to time.