Movie Review: Tenet (2020)

Tenet (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2020) – A CIA operative takes on a mission of international espionage, only to find it unfolding beyond real time.

5/5

Christopher Nolan loves toying with time. Linear narratives, it appears, do not interest him.

In Memento, his amnesiac character lives out his mystery in both forward and reverse chronology. With Inception, his measurement of years varies with every layer of the dream world. Interstellar has Nolan going deeper, working with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to firm up the science of his wormholes.

Tenet seems a natural extension of that same obsessive exploration. His new film yet again tinkers with the written rules of time by introducing head-spinning unknowns. With Kip Thorne back by his side, the pair boldly questions, what if we could invert everything around us? What if we could walk through our world as it moves backwards in time?

Tenet
“The name’s Bond. I don’t have a first name.”

An unnamed CIA operative (John David Washington) looks just as baffled when he witnesses a masked man reverse a bullet through its victim.

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” he, and inadvertently we, are told.

Cryptic answers meet his questions, the absence of proper explanation unsurprisingly irking most people. Our Universe is after all governed by set rules. It is in our nature to discredit things that make no sense with our current understanding of how the world works.

But just as Nolan insists through the words of his Protagonist, you have to start looking differently at the world. Most sci-fi fans have a understanding of time travel logic, at least in films. This isn’t that. As with every new idea in his previous ventures, we must re-learn its mechanics.

It takes letting go of the rules we know, to acclimatise to his new universe of inverted entropy and temporal pincer maneuvers. The terms if they sound too foreign, are of little importance. Exposition and clever visuals make the broad strokes easy to grasp, and sufficient for one to follow the story.

That is even if the science has to be left aside for future dissection. (There are always Reddit sleuths to do the job for you.)

Tenet
Pattinson cosplays as Nolan and confuses all on-set actors.

Circumstance forces the Protagonist to get the hang of it, fast. He learns his mission that he must stop the weapons from falling into the wrong hands and thus, prevent the world’s end. Teaming up with his local contact Neil (Robert Pattinson), he traces the inverted ammunition to its source.

Soon, he becomes entangled in a three-way conflict between an arms dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia), an angry Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and his art appraiser wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Complicating matters is the latter couple’s abusive relationship, which stirs up the Protagonist, making his professionalism that much harder.

The plot line, key to preventing armageddon, lends the heady science fiction a more emotional turn that invites empathy for Kat’s predicament. It is an escape from the cold science that have driven the film so far.

Where there is heart, there is excitement too as the concept takes action to the next level. Cars race along the highway, backward and forward in time. Full out warfare sees buildings explode and un-explode. The set pieces play out in carefully choreographed, stunning motion, set to Ludwig Göransson’s pulsing score that leaves one breathless.

Granted the dialogue does struggle to compete with the constant loud humming, a problem exacerbated by mask-wearing characters. Thankfully, local theatres offer subtitles for most mainstream releases, allowing the action to unfold without much confusion.

The most exciting scenes mostly begin with the Turnstile, a machine that allows the Protagonist to invert while co-existing with his original forward-moving self. Paradoxes surface, leaving pedantic viewers scrambling for resolution.

When half the time is spent trying to get the logic of a complex idea, it becomes difficult to invest in the story entirely, even in its more emotional moments. At least, not for the first viewing. The convoluted ideas lend a valid reason for revisits, each time marvelling at the innovation accomplished by Nolan, who is never afraid to dream a little bigger.


Tenet boldly manipulates time to baffling and fascinating effect, stirring giddy excitement in sci-fi fans who yearn for a shiny new concept to unravel.

12 thoughts on “Movie Review: Tenet (2020)”

  1. Terrific review! I’m a huge Nolan fan, and am looking very much forward to seeing this movie. I already know I won’t understand it the first time, but that has happened with almost all of his Nolan movies. I’m pretty much prepared for it…so in a way I guess with the second viewing I also will kind of travel backwards in time 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks much for reading! 😀 And this really is an incredible film. It’s just so refreshing to see an original concept for once. Nolan never fails to bring out that intrigue and wonder in audiences (even the cynical ones, I bet!).

      Like

  2. YES! I loved it too and it was so much fun to write about. In many ways it was almost destined to get some negative responses. It had so much put on its shoulders and expectations were through the roof. I thought it was terrific and even better a second time. Hoping to catch it one more time before it leaves the big screen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do realise that Nolan has been getting quite a bit of flak. But none of that detracts from the fact that he’s one of the most original filmmakers today. So glad you liked it too, enjoy your third viewing! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gah I’m SO JEALOUS you got to see this! Your review made me even more excited! No idea when or if it’ll play in my area at this point, so sadly it’s looking like I gotta wait for the Blu-ray.

    It’s interesting to see the fan/critical divide play out on social media. People either admire the hell out of Tenet or hate it outright, with seemingly no in-between. All I can say is Tenet was my most anticipated of 2020, and this pandemic didn’t help in the slightest 😩

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I hope you’ll get to see Tenet in theatres sometime! Can’t wait to hear what you think about it. This is my first film back at the cinema and I’m really thankful that things are slightly back to normal here, if not completely.

      Liked by 1 person

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