Review: ‘Tenet’

Christopher Nolan's Anticipated Spy Film Is A Diabolical And Confounding Spectacle

If it feels like most of 2020 has been about the when, where, and why of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, you aren’t far off. After numerous delays caused by the global bastard, questions about whether the movie should be released at all at such a time, and then heaped with undue expectations of saving the entire theatrical industry, Nolan’s highbrow, time-bending spy flick has finally arrived to a desperate, empty cinematic landscape eager for what the grandiose filmmaker does best; create jaw-dropping, IMAX-level experiences so vast and complex they demand multiple viewings.

Tenet is the most ambitious film of Nolan’s career and that’s really saying something. A decade after his mind-scrambling Inception, Nolan plays with the rules of logic and physics on a global scale. The palindromic title alone should clue you in to the narrative reindeer games the filmmaker is playing at. For those who have always wanted Nolan to do a James Bond movie, this is probably as close as you’re ever going to get, and also a perfect example why he’ll never take the reins of 007. A villain seeking world domination simply isn’t enough for Nolan. He needs to play with the rules of time and space, to weigh in on heady topics that fly over our heads like a jetliner when all we really want to do is watch the jetliner crash into something. He does give us the latter, and the easy thrill of watching uncomplicated destruction, oddly, feels like a welcome respite from a plot that is diabolical and yet confounding.

In short, Tenet  is like most of Nolan’s movies at this stage of his career; overwhelming, exciting, confusing, and you’ll probably need to watch it three or four times to get an idea what’s really going on. While the time-reversing dynamics call back to Nolan’s earlier films, including Memento, the scale and scope are beyond the level of Interstellar and Dunkirk. Characters aren’t really characters, they are pieces on a board, and that includes Protagonist (John David Washington, cool and confident), an agent in a suspect paramilitary unit during an attack on a Kiev opera hall. Even this seemingly simple setup is more than it appears to be. In the span of just a few minutes there are double-crosses and triple-blinds and shadowy figures, so that by the time Protagonist is outta there you have no idea what just happened or what side he’s on.

Having proven his loyalty, to who we have no Earthly idea, Protagonist is warped into a metaphysical world-saving mission, working alongside the roguish Neil (Robert Pattinson) and various other operatives who join in along the way. There are arms dealers who trade in weapons that have had their trajectory through time reversed. Feast on that for a minute…now imagine an entire movie that expands on it. Imagine the consequences of that power magnified on a planetary scale. Then imagine a movie which tells that story in a similarly shifting polarity. Tenet is a lot to take in. I shook my head more than once just to clear the cobwebs and get a handle on what was going on.

The density of Nolan’s plotting is undermined by thinly-drawn characters, almost out of necessity. There’s simply no room for anything else with such complexities that need ironing out. There are clandestine conversations over lunch with Michael Caine, who really seems to be enjoying his steak. Kenneth Branagh sports a hilarious accent as a nasty Russian criminal, who withholds his young son from the boy’s mother, Catherine (Elizabeth Debicki), and somehow that fits into the fate of the world. Truth be told, Catherine’s plight is the only place you’ll find any heart or passion in Tenet. 

To some extent, I do think Nolan wants it to be that way, putting the mechanics ahead of fun and emotion. Steadfastly demanding that Tenet be seen in theaters in the biggest way imaginable, Nolan provides ample reason for the theatrical experience. This is an epic film that demands to be viewed in IMAX, with action sequences larger than anything Nolan has ever attempted. The physical combat is fast and mirrors some of the gravity-defying qualities of Inception, but on more than one occasion they are just flat-out brutal. The opening opera hall assault floors you with its breadth and range, while cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera zips you between attendees, around armed soldiers, and through an intense firefight so fast you’ll get a neck cramp. The most blistering sequence involves a speeding car chase that is considerably more than that. Rarely has a car chase had such monumental consequences depending on its outcome.

At least, I’m pretty sure there were monumental consequences? It was hard to tell because Nolan’s sound mix was…well, a mess. I’m not sure what was going on, but a great deal of Tenet‘s dialogue was incomprehensible. You know how reporters hate it when the President has one of his “helicopter press briefings” with the sound of rotor blades drowning him out? Well, imagine a movie where everyone is talking through crashing waves, roaring airplanes, gunfire, and the “BRRRAAAAMMMMM!!!!!” of Ludwig Goransson’s Zimmer-esque score.  My guess is theaters aren’t equipped to handle whatever intricate sound mix Nolan had in mind, and maybe that’ll be one of those things that gets retooled as the movie opens up in markets at a later date.

It’s impossible to get deeper into the plot, one because Nolan’s people would probably have me killed, but also because this movie is going to demand multiple viewings to get a full picture. I’m not sure how likely that’s going to be given the current situation in the world, and the availability of theaters to people in certain cities. Those who are able to see Tenet will be taken on a time-spanning whirlwind that moves backward and forwards, and across the globe a couple of times over.  Nolan knows how to grasp an audience and leave them breathless at the sheer spectacle. But when it’s all said and done, chances are you’ll be obsessing over what you don’t understand about Tenet , rather than what you enjoyed.




Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.