This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Jose Viera’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
There’s a moment when The Protagonist (John David Washington) walks out of a revolving chamber and he’s given some kind of breathing apparatus that feeds his lungs oxygen. When he steps out into the world on his mission the moment itself is very evocative of when Dorothy Gale walks out of her black and white House into a beautiful world of vibrant technicolor. That world of course is Oz and in the case of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet the world is our world but inverted. The Protagonist looks up and sees a bird flying backwards, well actually the bird is flying the way it’s supposed to it’s just that the Protagonist is moving backwards. Well actually he’s really moving forward it’s just that he’s going against the very flow of time itself. He needs the breathing apparatus because his lungs are inverted therefore they will reject the oxygen from the past. Look to be honest I’m not sure if I’m even getting all of this correct because this is in fact a Christopher Nolan movie and I’ve only seen it once! We all know by now that sometimes you need to go through these things several times before you get the mechanics of it all and I would imagine that is all by design (It’s also a hell of a way to sell more tickets!).
Now I do like that there are specific visual cues to look for that helps determine when things or characters are inverted versus when they are not. If someone is wearing tactical gear with a mask they are more than likely inverted. Same thing if they are wearing the aforementioned transparent breathing apparatus. I like that in the movies climax the inverted task force has a blue color band while the opposite team is in red. These are simple things that really help when it comes to trying to keep up with the action sequences.
In typical Nolan fashion we are given a confident and brash protagonist (it’s weird that literally he’s called almost nothing else.) I can’t remember if Neil (Robert Pattinson) calls him by any other name, but things are very complicated from the start when the protagonist has to find a arms dealer named Priya (Dimple Kapadia) and get an idea of where she’s getting Inverted weaponry. Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is apparently a man who’s in contact with scientists from the future and they want him to find the pieces for a device (9 pieces that have been separated by a future scientist) and this device apparently is powerful enough that it can stop human life as we know it. There’s an illustration of this mid way through the movie when an explosion that was supposed to kill the protagonist is actually thwarted because of the inversion process going through the protagonist. Neil described it by saying that it’s like pissing into the wind apparently. One action is moving forward while another is moving backwards simultaneously. Does any of this make sense? I’m being rhetorical because it is a little difficult to explain and I literally just watched this movie. Still working through it in my head. And that’s actually one of this movies greatest qualities. It’s meant to rest in your mind long after the credits rolled and become more and more clear the more you meditate on it. Nolan made a film that he wants you to spend your time trying to unravel even when you’re going about the activities of your day.
I think the concept is rather fascinating and I actually found more enjoyment in thinking about what it would be like to go through life inverted. There’s a rather complex finale that is more interesting when you think about it and run it through your mind as opposed to actually experiencing it. In a strange kind of way I saw this type of thing in Marvels Doctor Strange finale however this movie really wanted to explore the dynamics of really being pushed through a place in time where events have already occurred. And more importantly the characters are actually going through the events as they are occurring and of course there’s the danger of running into yourself which is a big no no in time travel. I actually enjoyed a lot of this and yet I didn’t like some of the time travel stuff because its been done before. The big draw is that Nolan found an inventive way of doing it like its never been done before. All I can say is that you’re either going to hate the end or at least find it intriguing.
One of the most important supporting characters is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). She’s married to Andrei and she’s the one with the important connections to him even though she hates him and is in fact being held hostage by him in a way. A lot of the conflict in the movie comes from the domestic drama between her and him while also getting wrapped up in the protagonists mission. I think Debicki does exceptional work even though her story isn’t nearly as interesting as the protagonists mission. Kenneth Branagh comes across as very menacing as Andrei and even gets one of the more crude lines in the film when he threatens to remove the protagonists testicles and then cut his throat open so he can insert them into his windpipe. The protagonist takes the promise of this gruesome death with stride however I found myself wondering why Andrei would issue such a dramatic threat at a dinner party. You would think he would abduct him first and then tell him what he’s going to do to him right before he does it. Branagh is a very Shakespearean actor and his character works best when he’s trying to control Kat and failing to do so. Andrei reveals his true weakness when he resorts to trying to beat her physically and yet even then Kat finds ways to outwit him.
There’s several fun chase scenes, with a very complex heist involving multiple vehicles and a fire truck that becomes very dangerous once Neil discovers an inversion due to the language going backwards on the radio frequency he and the protagonist are monitoring. And the movie gives you plenty of opportunities to see the same action scene more than once! However when you go through the same action sequences you are seeing them in a new light and different details emerge. This is a movie made for people that love to bask in minute details. So if you’re a film image sleuth this movie is going to be a buffet for your eyes! Some details you’ll notice on your first go around such as Neil’s reaction to a masked goon during the first heist that takes place in an airport. Pay attention carefully because you are going to notice some very strange things in that sequence that will pay off later in the movie. Another thing that helps ground the action scenes regardless of how confusing they may seem is the assured confidence of Washington and Pattinson’s performances. They share tremendous chemistry and make some of the otherwise stale sequences seem a whole lot more fun than they should be.
There were times when I did find the movie enjoyable and loved how it engaged my mind. Then there were times when the movie kept my interest at arms length and I felt that I wasn’t really enjoying it. Half the time I was onboard and half the time I was thinking that the movie was closed off to me. For instance one minute I’m enjoying seeing the protagonist journeying through our inverted world until he ends up in a very uninteresting storage container for a good length of time. Another element that also brought the movies wonders to a grinding halt is the overly long exposition scenes! I think the big briefing before the movies finale actually made things more confusing than they needed to be. I feel that Nolan would have been better off trusting the audience to interpret the action scenes rather than trying to explain every single specific detail!
I didn’t love any of the characters at all even though I understood that they are fighting for a good cause. However the cause is in of itself very generic. Kind of like a saving mankind type of thing. The characters are supposed to be morally ambiguous because they are fighting for what’s right and they are sacrificing so much for the future. I don’t understand how Nolan does characterization. I think he’s too anamored with the idea of his movie to really get us invested in his characters. So In short it’s a very ambitious movie, but it left me feeling cold so to speak. I didn’t connect with a single character and I’m not sure why it’s important for them to fight for anything. I think saving the world from not existing is the most generic motivation for any character. That’s not to say that John David Washington doesn’t make for a fantastic lead. The man is charisma incarnate and you may not like his motivations as a character but his acting is so assured that you do believe in his convictions as the character despite the fact that by the end of the movie so much pertaining to the protagonist is still shrouded in secrecy. I hope to see this movie again and perhaps post a more thorough review. For now I recommend it, but I don’t feel that it’s a great entertainment. However my initial assessment could change with repeat viewings. If there is one thing I can assure you of regarding Tenet, it is that you will want to watch it again!