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Review of Tenet: An exhilarating but bewildering blockbuster

Roar writer Arjan Arenas reviews the new Christopher Nolan film, Tenet.

It goes without saying that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has been one of the most eagerly anticipated movies of the year and has been touted as the most important. Conceived as 2020’s major summer blockbuster, it’s arrived after countless pandemic-related delays, but while other films this year were relegated to streaming, its writer-director fought relentlessly for a cinematic release; fair enough, Nolan’s movies usually look better on the big screen.

For the better part of the year, Tenet has been hyped as the film that will lure audiences back into cinemas, giving the kiss of life to an industry whose future has looked perilously uncertain. As Nolan’s body of critically acclaimed and intellectually complex work has been revisited by critics, the maestro seemed tasked with cementing his reputation as one of the greatest directors of our time by mounting a technically and narratively ambitious movie on which the hopes of the whole industry might rest. No pressure, then. So, is Tenet worth the agonising wait? Well, yes and no.

John David Washington stars as a CIA agent known only as the “Protagonist.” After narrowly defying death during an opera house siege, he learns that he has been recruited by a mysterious international organisation called Tenet. His objective: to track and destroy a deadly weapon intended to trigger World War III. To understand what he is working against, the Protagonist is shown bullets which fire in reverse; they, like the key weapon, have been technologically modified to move backwards through time and are capable of destroying the past, and thereby the future.

The mission takes our nameless hero across the globe, assisted by swaggering, Saville Row-suited MI6 handler Neil (an unsubtle Bond audition tape from Robert Pattinson), to track down the man into whose hands the doomsday weapon has fallen, billionaire arms dealer Andrei Sator (the reliably hammy Kenneth Branagh). He’s helpfully signposted as the villain by the histrionic Russian accent, in which he delivers lines such as “How would you like to die?” and “It is enjoyable watching a man choke on his own balls?” Added to the equation is Sator’s abused trophy wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who steadily proves crucial to the whole operation.

Washington delivers a brilliantly watchable lead performance as the Protagonist, imbuing this man of action with charisma and level-headedness as he struggles, along with the audience, to make sense of a situation in which he initially feels out of his depth. Debicki offers great support as Kat, bringing some much-needed humanity to a film which often feels overly clinical in its handling of the characters. Ludwig Goransson’s score, with its sharp elastic strings, expertly intensifies the tension, while Hoyte van Hoytema’s sweeping cinematography captures the epic scale of Nolan’s action set pieces, highlights of which include a grandly orchestrated plane hijacking.

However, Tenet’s primary weakness is its rigid adherence to Nolan’s perplexing narrative rules, sacrificing rich characterisation in favour of intricate exposition, which frequently leaves you none the wiser, and might well leave you scratching your head for hours, possibly days, after leaving the cinema. There are so many of the director’s calling cards in the movie that it borders on parody. Non-linear storytelling? Check. Climactic cross-cutting? Check. Obligatory role contributing to Michael Caine’s pension fund? Check. (He supplies gravitas in his cameo as a venerable intelligence officer.)

It’s safe to say that Tenet is succeeding in its own mission to draw the filmgoing masses back to the big screen, and hardcore Nolan fanboys will probably not be disappointed (and are probably poring over it on YouTube and Reddit as we speak). Despite this, while Nolan’s towering status among filmmakers remains assured, his latest movie, for all its narrative and visual gimmickry, lacks the emotional and philosophical substance of his masterpieces, Memento and Inception, and while it’s far from a terrible film, the lack of real investment in its characters means it doesn’t rise above being a time-killing (and time-bending) blockbuster.

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