There is a vital scene in the first half where characters exchange essential information, and the background score suddenly gets louder. You lean forward to catch what is being said, but then the camera takes a 360-degree spin, making it all the more difficult for you to whet your attention. That’s Tenet for its majority of the runtime.
The 11th Mindbender from Christopher Nolan, this is by far his most vexing one. It’s as audacious as you have come to expect from him, though it’s shockingly deceiving. It reminds you of the previous slumps with Bane and Dr. Brand’s muffled speech, making them merely scratches than the huge dent this one has in the mixing.
Armed with one word (Tenet!), the Protagonist (John David Washington) – an unnamed CIA agent, is tasked with a highly complex mission. He is to stop global annihilation at the hands of a Russian madman, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who appears to be using an advanced tech acquired from the future.
In his mission, he is accompanied by Neil (Robert Pattinson) – a witty, however furtive handler; Priya (Dimple Kapadia), an Indian arms dealer, and Sir Michael Crossby (Michael Caine), a British Intelligent Officer, who provides him with the necessary details, to begin with.
What follows is a globetrotting journey, where time emerges as the real enemy and Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) at the center of the conflict.
Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s Unofficial James Bond Adventure
As much I anticipated, Tenet is a substantially thicker homage to the James Bond franchise. The marketing team attempted their best in disguising this as a typical Christopher Nolan brain-puzzle. But the reality deviates significantly.
Opening with a breathtaking (arguably Nolan’s best) curtain-raiser, the film earnestly follows the standard Bond movie tropes.
The film is chockfull of Bond movie tropes. Instead of MI6, a similar covert organization hires John David’s character, who is expeditiously introduced as a righteous spy. His would-be alias (Neil, Priya, Crossby) are smart swaps for Q, Moneypenny, and Tanner. Debicki becomes a Bond girl of sorts, though without the hots. And there is the classic end-of-the-world plot, led by Branagh’s over-the-top Sator, who also has a sizeable henchman.
All of it is the typical Bond movie checklist, which gets further elongated by a short Kitchen brawl, where the hero engages in a fist-fight all suited and booted.
Nolan had perpetually pronounced his admiration for Bond movies. With Tenet, he clearly satiates his childhood fascinations. And he does fine, in the said regard. But his work is far-off from the astonishment you crave from him.
Recommended: All 11 Christopher Nolan Movies Ranked
In harmonizing music and camerawork, his signature craftsmanship is present here by and large, but the film lacks the intellectual and emotional depth he is most admired for. What you get is a deliberately convoluted plot that will demand you multiple viewings to understand. And it is undoubtedly fun. His idea of time-inversion is fascinating. But once you adequately decipher it, there is little left to enjoy.
Hurried Pacing, Over-Exposition, and an Offensive Sound Mixing
The most disappointment you get from Tenet is how it is written. Akin to a standard structure of a Bond film, the first hour of Tenet is strictly formulaic. There is an extended action scene, followed by
- some necessary (here: very heavy) exposition,
- the introduction of primary characters,
- a buildup for the first major setpiece,
- the spectacle, and
- a dramatic reveal that raises the stakes while spotlighting the antagonist.
You analyze any spy film, and you will find the same approach. Yet, you expect it to work because there is a significant novelty in how Nolan tells a story. His non-linear style, guided by tremendous editing, made each of his previous films gripping from the start. Tenet doesn’t have it. And that’s where you broadly notice his shortcomings as a writer.
Nolan, so far, had managed to not overstep the line where exposition kills the fun. With Tenet, he leaps by a considerable margin.
There is so much information hurled at you during the first half of the movie that your mind refuses to note it. After an exhilarating beginning, the film goes directly into the expository mode and doesn’t let up for a long time. The Protagonist meets a variety of people, and each of them provides him (and you, the viewer) with complex information that comes overly on-the-nose through dull dialogues.
One scene after the other, the exposition accumulates to a degree when you can’t process it, knowing each of it will be useful later when the time-inversion thing comes to effect. And by the time it does and is further explained, the terrible sound-mixing doesn’t allow you to fully understand it.
A sort of revelation happens during the third act, which appears related to the details missed earlier. You can’t help but feel offended.
Knowing it’s a Nolan movie, you always go in fully prepared to keep your horses running. But the narrative of Tenet is a bit too perplexing for its own good.
The Movie Emphasizes Plot Over Characters
This is the first time you feel Nolan purposely trying to mislead you in understanding his film. Because if seen with subtitles and decipherable audio, the story isn’t as complicated as willfully made for a theatre experience.
Make no mistake – there is plenty of thrilling, even jaw-dropping scenes that absolutely demand big-screen viewing. But compared to Nolan’s previous films, Tenet turns out as an empty vessel that is strictly plot-driven, not character-driven.
None of the characters are resonating, let alone be multi-faceted. Even on the railroads of a Bond movie, his characters lack the edge that would make them likable.
The world loves James Bond for his grey characteristics, not the superhuman feats he does.
John David’s Protagonist is plain boring. Not for a single moment, he does anything unpredictable that you make of his character from the first ten minutes. Nolan’s continual focus on his time manipulative penchants wholly sacrifices character development, making them nothing beyond plot communicating devices.
Seeing this film, you can also argue if Nolan was ever good at writing characters. His finest of character-oriented movies (The Prestige, Insomnia) were simply adaptations. His own work as a writer (Inception, Interstellar, even Dunkirk) has been reprimanded for no character development.
Yet, what saves Tenet from becoming an absolute agitation is the technicalities, which Nolan is extremely good at, and the decent-to-dope performances that preserve your attention.
Fine Performances, Stellar Technicalities
Once you endure the dull and confusing first half of Tenet, there is plenty of awesomeness to behold. The time-inversion element takes center stage, and we get some genuinely mind-blowing scenes to enjoy, which look and sound incredible in an IMAX theater.
A car chase, in particular, is unlike anything you have seen before.
This is precisely the segment you would repeatedly watch when the blu-ray comes out (in December!) and will be interested in deconstructing their filming process. It instead suffices to say the third act of the film recuperates the felonies in writing and sound mixing to such an extent that you would recommend the movie to others solely for the fun of seeing certain scenes on the big screen.
This is the third collaboration of Christopher Nolan and Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and their alliance is getting superior to each film. Hoytema paints Tenet with the similar lush scenery that made Spectre such an extravagant movie.
Despite failing to follow the plot, you will remain mesmerized by the visuals, which are additionally backed by Nolan’s newest composer, Ludwig Göransson. His compositions are as loud and bassy as you would expect from Hans Zimmer. And even though his score doesn’t entirely qualify for an album listening, it’s very apt for the film’s trippiest moments.
The one-note characters are also saved by uniformly good performances, which keep you engaged in the story.
John David is pretty solid as the Protagonist. He brings significant humanity to his character, making him likable despite having no backstory.
His silent demeanor is amiable, as he becomes your eyes and ears, conveying everything that you experience, seeing Nolan’s temporal vision unfold. And he is superbly complemented by Robert Pattinson’s sly act as Neil.
Over the years, Robert Pattinson has undergone a radical change as an actor. He was memorable in Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and much more in The Lighthouse. With Tenet, he bounces back on the commercial sphere, and he is lovely, arguably the best part of Tenet on a rewatch.
The wit John David’s Protagonist misses out on is balanced by his character’s stealthy humor. Every scene he is in is apparently the most engaging in the film. It’s a shame Nolan did not focus more on his and JDW’s camaraderie. Similar to The Man from U.N.C.L.E, their chemistry is delightful, and this film could have been the crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster if it prioritized being a spy adventure with them at the center of the action.
Elizabeth Debicki is also fantastic, provided she plays an almost caricature role. Time and time again, Nolan has failed to write a good female character, and Kat is one of the worst of her creations. She is one of her usual tormented women. And for the worse, she gets both physically and psychologically abused by Sator, an absolutely over-the-top villain.
Yet, both the actors manage to make their parts compelling and provide a slight but much-needed emotional angle to the story.
For the Indian audience, including myself, the inclusion of Dimple Kapadia was exciting. And I was happy to see her play a pivotal role, in which she is excellent. Among the others, Himesh Patel is marginalized to a single action-scene, whereas Aaron Taylor Johnson just about manages to register himself in a brief role.
Tenet: Final Verdict
In a time where CGI-laden films and endless sequels are dominating the film industry, it is easier to defend and recommend a standalone experience like Tenet. But it is a disappointing film by the standards of Christopher Nolan, who was on a continuous surge of making one excellent film after the other.
It has the same audacity and big-screen spectacle of his previous movies but is devoid of character development and emotional depth, making it the least enjoyable in repeat viewings.
Watch it if you must, preferably in the largest format, and with subtitles if possible.
Rating: 3 / 5
What is your review of Tenet? Have you managed to see the film yet? Share your thoughts below in the comments section.