Tenet (2020)

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan

A global pandemic pushed the release of the new James Bond back in time, but here to take its place is another of Christopher Nolan’s mind wringers, and fans of the former will find everything up to code(name) as it features an tenacious hero who must stop a villain from using his doomsday device on the world so that life may continue for us innocents. Also attuned to the existential bewilderment caused by this hellish year, Tenet features opaque plot points made outright impenetrable by a scientific plot device that drives the film and non-stop action that throttles you as it barrels ahead. 

An immediate boon to Tenet is John David Washington’s central performance as the protagonist (that’s actually what he’s called) an American operative who’s enlisted to stop a Russian arms dealer from exacting his self-destructive will on the world by way of an algorithm that facilitates a type of time travel. With an ice cold facade that belies an inner fire, Washington’s a rock in a tumultuous film that hits you with tidal waves of information that pour forth with the unthinking ferocity of a roiling ocean. 

It never lets up. Tenet is one long stream of spectacular action sequences that individually would be center pieces in lesser (and less lavishly funded) films, and the sheer quantity has the unfortunate side effect of not letting each heist, fight scene, car chase and shootout get its due. The action simply sucks up all the narrative oxygen, the remnant of which has to be mask-fed to exposition scenes where the film’s science hoodoo is explained.

Nolan’s expositionist du jour is Robert Pattinson as Neil, an operative who has to be introduced with the caveat that while he is mostly a fighting man, he also has a Masters degree in physics, so you should believe him when he (frequently) tries to explain the science behind the natural law breaking so much of Tenet is wrapped up in. 

I’ll say this now. Anyone who says they have a firm grasp of everything that happens and how it all works is a liar, because while you may have an understanding of the science and how it in theory might enable what’s happening, you’d also need a PhD in Nolan’s storytelling, and even then Tenet isn’t his most neatly arranged tale.

Underneath the murky physics is a simple film, however, not different from many other uninspired thrillers, and a reviewer not taken with the technical prowess of Tenet might say the science mumbo jumbo is there to distract from the barebones story underneath Tenet’s action-flexing muscles.  

But such is the filmmaking excellence of Nolan and crew that even if you completely give up on understanding and simply come along for the ride, you’ll still be thrilled by the action on screen and Nolan’s ability to direct at scale with his massive set pieces. It’s still easy to root for those who are clearly the good guys and watch on in suspense as they dodge danger and defy the odds to save us all from evil, even if you’re not sure how and why they’re doing it. 

The intensity of Tenet is at 11, and the stampede of what’s on screen is not calmed by an overzealous score by Ludwig Göransson. The human element that Nolan ties this epic caper to is also a lesser version of the same parent-child bond he’s used before in both Inception and Interstellar, and it means Elizabeth Debicki’s fine performance as Kat is wasted on a character that’s nothing more than a plot device. 

The dialogue, characters, and plot of Tenet, its cinematic meat and potatoes, don’t justify the cost of a ticket, but everything surrounding it does. Yes, you’re going to be served plain hamburger and fries, but you’ll get to watch a mad genius make it for you using state-of-the-art equipment, grilling your patty with a flamethrower, cutting your fries with deep-learning laser guns, and toasting the bun using refracted heat from the shield panelling on a satellite orbiting the earth. That’s still a pretty spectacular hamburger. 

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