Tenet ★★★½

Hell yeah baby, it’s Tenet time!

Like most other Letterboxd users I’ve really missed going to the cinemas this year and what better reintroduction to the big screen than another loud, expansive Christopher Nolan movie chock full of crazy action and mindbending setpieces? The answer is none. None better. Tenet is Nolan’s eleventh feature film (his first since 2006 not to be scored by Hans Zimmer) and it follows a group of highly trained undercover spies who come into contact with a process known as “inversion” – the act of reversing the entropy of an object or person so that they travel backwards through time – while attempting to take down a Russian arms dealer. Featuring a nerve-shredding score full of wailing strings and rumbling brass courtesy of Ludwig Göransson and starkly beautiful, high-contrast globetrotting photography from Hoyte van Hoytema the film follows through on all the audio-visual panache you’d expect from a new Nolan joint – but does it live up to the hype?

Well, yes and no. As an action film this is maybe the best since Mad Max: Fury Road: there are gun battles, car chases, hand-to-hand combat scenes and even a plane crash that are all executed beautifully (and, because of the time travel element, some of them are shown twice in a way I won’t reveal but thought was absolutely brilliant). One of this film’s strongest aspects by far is its reliance on practical explosions and miniature work as well as real locations over CGI - the effects are blisteringly real and impactful from the opening hostage scene through to the borderline trippy finale (Nolan’s films all contain bizarre imagery justified through elaborately mathematical conceits – call it logical surrealism if you will), so much so that the sensory experience of watching it in a theatre was often overwhelming. The time travel is also meticulously thought-out and presented in ways I’ve never seen before; I won’t pretend to have understood all of it but nevertheless it is mighty impressive to behold and really fun to think about after the movie ends. The cast is of course great, especially Robert Pattison and Elizabeth Debicki who exude classic movie-star charm while elevating their roles with a sincerity and deftness that would otherwise be lacking, and Kenneth Branagh does some fine work too (he’s clearly having a lot of fun) but I expect a bit more from a Nolan villain after the Dark Knight trilogy – there are hints of a deeper psychology here and there and his plan has some interesting implications but it’s buried under too much generic bad-guy posturing to stand out as anything all that special.

This leads me to the movie’s faults, and there are unfortunately a few more than expected (especially after Dunkirk which I still think is excellent). Firstly, the dialogue – Nolan is highly competent at writing distinctive characters but the stuff he makes them say always sounds like movie dialogue. This is somewhat forgivable for me (I am, after all, watching a movie) but there are times here where it tips over into sounding trite; when everyone speaks in quips and riddles all of the time, no matter how cute they are, eventually it’s going to get confusing and with an already convoluted premise it wasn’t long until I found myself getting lost. There are also a handful of jarring cuts - I tend to like Nolan’s impressionistic editing style (especially now that he’s learned how to properly choreograph action) and it mostly works in this as well but some sequences are just too choppy for my liking. Those are relatively minor complaints though, the real problem with Tenet is that it doesn’t earn anywhere near the same amount of emotional investment as Nolan’s other films - the central character doesn’t have much personal motivation, he does what he does because he is Mission Man, the Man who does the Thing, and that’s all the film really asks him to do. By the end of Inception and Interstellar you feel like you’ve been on those respective journeys for a lifetime, getting to know each crewmember’s deepest fears and desires and seeing them make incredibly personal decisions, but by the end of Tenet I feel like I’m only just getting to know anyone and that’s two and a half hours in. Nolan has often been accused of being a cold filmmaker, something I’ve never really understood, but here the complaint makes sense – I genuinely feel as though he was only interested in building a shiny new plot puzzle and the interior state of his characters was pretty much an afterthought.

Still, this is an incredibly well-made and inventive palindromic action movie that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen you can find. The things in Tenet that work really do work and regardless of the bumpy spots it fits snugly into the small crop of exceptional films to come out this year, held together by constantly propulsive tension and a truly fascinating conceit. I wish those impressive mechanics were in service of something a little more potent than what you'd find in a standard spy thriller but, for what it is, it's still very much above-average. There are certain action beats in this that I’m already itching to revisit in the theatre and that’s not a feeling I have very often anymore - this might not be the film to save cinema (if that's even a thing we should be talking about at the moment) but right now, it's more than welcome and if you live in the appropriate area I very much recommend that you go out and see it for yourself.

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