Minutes into the opening of Tenet, you get a small sense of adrenaline. You’re strapped in for another Christopher Nolan thrill ride full of twists, turns, and spectacle. And for many moviegoers (myself included), it’s the first movie you’ll have seen in a theater in months due to the ongoing pandemic. While the excitement of watching another movie from Nolan accompanied by your return to the theater begins to settle in, so does confusion to a varying degree. In terms of story, Tenet is Nolan’s most inspiring movie to date; it’s easy to view this movie as the filmmaker’s attempt at making a James Bond movie (he’s always wanted to make a Bond movie). But with that comes the see-saw battle of being able to fully comprehend everything that’s happening. But even though Tenet can be dizzying at times, it’s still another exciting blockbuster from Nolan.
The major plot threads of Tenet’s story form a description that seems easy to understand on paper: a CIA agent (called The Protagonist) is tasked with saving the world that’s on the brink of a nuclear war. But throw in large breadcrumbs related to time and the science behind it where we, as the audience, are supposed to be smarter than the average person, and things get a little muddied. Sure, characters do their best to explain things, but it’s all done on the fly. Even after a quick look at the plot description currently on Wikipedia, I still will require a second viewing to better understand things. I also think maybe some subtitles on screen could have helped as well, given how some of the dialogue goes by on a whim. If you do see Tenet in a theater, you better pay very close attention to the first hour if you want to better understand what happens in the second half of the movie.
With all that has been said about Tenet’s plot, what you witness on screen is still mostly an exciting blockbuster. With all the globetrotting, Tenet really does feel like a James Bond movie, featuring some of the best action sequences to date in a Nolan movie. But hey, let’s not forget to mention cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s (Ad Astra) work here, the accompanying score from Ludwig Goransson (Black Panther), and the sound work in general, which expertly combine to help elevate these exciting moments. One especially thrilling sequence reminded me of watching a car chase from a Fast and Furious movie, but through a different lens, thanks to the movie’s usage of time. With enough action and thrills, mixed with the bending of time throughout the course of its 150 runtime, Tenet never loses the viewer’s interest, but actually adds to it, thanks to the oft-mentioned plot. It also goes without saying that Tenet demands to be seen in an IMAX theater, as half the movie was shot using IMAX cameras.
A large portion of what makes Tenet feel like a James Bond movie is the presence of its lead star, John David Washington (son of Denzel Washington), as the Protagonist. We first got a good look at Washington flourish in HBO’s Ballers. But now carrying the weight of a blockbuster, it’s hard not to see his career taking off after Tenet. Bursting with charisma and coolness, Washington is a very likable lead character. Even if we do not get his character’s full backstory (nor anyone else’s in the movie), Washington does a fine job leading this ensemble. In smaller roles, Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh are both solid as the protagonist’s partner and the antagonist of the movie. However, Elizabeth Debicki is the brighter spot alongside Washington as the lead female in Tenet. Like Washington, Debicki’s career is about to take off after this. (She next will be seen portraying Princess Diana in Netflix’s The Crown.)
I can’t tell you that anyone will be able to come out of Tenet fully understanding what they just saw. But what I can tell you is that I was engaged and bewildered (both good and bad) from start to finish – just like I am whenever I leave almost all of Nolan’s movies. But few filmmakers are at the level Nolan is right now. You should put anything he touches on your radar, especially Tenet, since it’s the first major blockbuster to release since the reopening of theaters. With it, Nolan welcomes back audiences craving new blockbusters. Tenet might not be one of Nolan’s best movies, but it’s still a thrilling blockbuster meant to be seen on the big screen and, as a complete product, part of why we go to the movies.