If someone tells you they got Tenet the first time, they’re probably lying.
As this is a spoiler-free review, in line with the marketing I won’t be discussing plot details. Suffice to say Christopher Nolan’s latest, starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki, is a sci-fi neo-noir heist thriller which begs questions of our understanding of time.
Nolan’s features offer that rare conflation of the frenetic and contemplative; grand ideas someone like Malick gives you time to reflect on while his contemporary lends you pause only once the months, or maybe days arrive between your intendedly first and here inevitably second viewing. The whole conception propels a phrenic overload tied not, at least at the time of viewing, to purely philosophical musings but the welcome sensory realisation that you are amidst something most viewers (this author included) will not immediately reckon with and enjoy teasing out with the friends, as we did, for at least the immediate hour following and no doubt many more.
Inception alarm bells may be ringing in many heads; a straightforward point of comparison, they are very different. The former remaining a predominantly speculative piece of fiction, Tenet, while more labyrinthine, importantly, and this author is willing to revise this opinion on repeat viewings, offers fewer interpretations, for this is in every sense a noir.
The exception to this rule are the motivations of characters, or a character, as your reading may have it, who while hugely consequential in events do/does not appear on screen; an eerie, thrilling story innovation likely to engender the deepest dives into this mythology.
Progressing with the pace and stylings of a Chandler novel, the tighter frames and shadows that befitted those centred in Nolan’s breakout Memento, absent here, better set the tone for a tumble down a rabbit hole. Unlike the Big Sleeps, Chinatowns and best of the genre, in Tenet our cast of characters by and large are evidently assembled relatively early (things were fine, given the premise, when mysterious strangers passed in the night), by which time the noir imprint overstays its welcome and we all fall into large-scale action fare that barely begets Marlowe or his ilk.
And the action is good; very good. A car chase, a later raid, hanger antics, an ‘abseil’ and a mesmerising third act among highlights, the particular premise (and there are too shades of The Matrix here) proffers us something we’ve barely or ever gotten to see alongside such significantly practical production values. The buy-in will not be unfamiliar to say Star Trek or Doctor Who fans who will easily pinpoint familiar stories and arcs, but Nolan, overly interested in the practical applications and furnished with many bags of money, here possesses a much bigger canvas to play.
Deserving of attention to detail as regards the layers and intricate set pieces necessary to this action, these sequences are better for, as Nolan is want, their having actually been filmed; with the intrusions of CGI emerging overly obvious and grating. The only other appearance that takes us out of this universe is Michael Caine. As good as it is to see him, Caine’s about one step up from phoning it in and Nolan should have known by now to throw out his checklist.
Spectacular for its plot, staging and that visual which the premise atypically permits, conversely lacking and glaringly so is that otherwise so essential; character. Thankfully absent the need for spoilers I will tell you everything one could glean about every character in the next paragraph.
Washington’s Protagonist (that’s what they call him) has a sense of honour, wants to do the right thing and save the innocent. He’s none too au fait with high society types, but that’s quickly forgotten. Debicki’s Kat, admirably and statedly, will do anything for her son. Pattinson’s Neil, well, he’s a physicist, and nifty with a bungee cord. There is one other character whose casting is treated as a reveal and even as it’s a very lax one I won’t ruin it here. They are by far the most interesting figure, their motivations being mired in the desperation and uncertainty characteristic of late Soviet-era Russia, though that compelling falls away with the likes of his hammy invective lifted directly from Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre.
It doesn’t help that the actor is very bad at playing this sinister figure; their casting only further undermined by a lousy Russian accent they too deployed to ill-effect as a villain in a film this author had graciously forgotten to this point. Debicki saves a lot of their shared sequences; her performance and physical presence here-in lending Tenet much of the gravitas not suggested by Kat’s undercooked characterisation.
The figure opposite Kat being evidently intended to reflect the struggle of the film, there is a conflict in Tenet, a thrilling one, philosophically and present in any decision characters make, between fatalism and nihilism. For they are different things, positing question of action versus reaction and the value of morality itself in the face of its very absence should doom impend. It’s a crucial distinction the movie and those in the firing lines largely acknowledge and use to account for their choices; too inevitably reflective of the divergent readings to come. It all could have played out to such greater heights with a more empathetic, nuanced foil that might have been had he not, say, threatened to feed someone their testicles.
Amidst a long delay and notwithstanding any detractions Tenet was well worth the wait; Nolan gave us something we were excited for and even better left us with something we’re thrilled to see again.
Tenet is in cinemas from August 27