In Tenet, director Christopher Nolan begins by establishing a shot of the Kyiv Opera House, then immediately takes the audience inside to a covert mission already in progress. As can be expected from Nolan, this is no ordinary spy film. He jettisons standard operating procedure in favor of cerebral concepts, most notably time inversion, that challenge temporal conventions and practical set pieces. The Protagonist (John David Washington) enters as a CIA agent whose quick reflexes allow him to remain unscathed by a bullet that is traveling backward through time. This is a suspicious aberration, one that John Le Carré’s fictional spy hero George Smiley would find maddening. Upon witnessing this spellbinding moment, the Protagonist is given the assignment of tracking down Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and the manufacturers of these “inverted” weapons. Yet, all is not what it seems. Armed only with the cryptic word “tenet,” the Protagonist and his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson) submerge themselves into a labyrinthine scheme and must prevent Sator from completing a Faustian bargain that would extinguish life as we know it. Nolan raises the stakes throughout Tenet with exponentially increasing MacGuffins and sharp camera tricks, blurring the lines between video game and dream logic. Tenet’s action is thrilling, but its character development and ease of delivery are flawed.
For the role of “The Protagonist,” Nolan creates his most daring character mashup yet, melding character types from British spy novelists Ian Fleming and Len Deighton. Nolan’s protagonist has the jet set lifestyle of James Bond, while still being identifiable with the working class anonymous agent of Deighton’s novelThe IPCRESS File (1962) . Washington is believable in this stoic role, conveying sincerity, loyalty and determination. With fantastic strength and agility, he shines in compelling action scenes. To the detriment of Tenet, however, Washington falls short of the charisma of Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt or any of the Bond actors to date. The protagonist’s empathy for (and attraction to) Kat is prevalent, but it’s rather flat.
Pattinson is Tenet’s most engaging actor, as he excels in his supporting role as a British intelligence agent. He masters the facial dexterity of appearing aloof one moment, like James Dean, and then suave and in control the next. In Tenet’s cloud of mystery and plot twists, Pattinson flourishes by exuding charm, tenacity and wit.
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Branagh is effective as the greedy, self-centered tyrant Sator. As Kat, Debicki exhibits fright and frustration very well, but her character is too much of a wallflower, rather plastic in presentation. Whether the fault lies in Debicki’s acting or Nolan’s script, viewers may struggle to fully rally behind the protagonist’s extreme efforts to save this rather cold aristocrat with a tainted past, even though she is victimized by Sator. Nolan could have more fully developed Tenet’s characters and more thoroughly engaged with viewers if he hadn’t devoted so much of the dialogue to explaining the various facets of inversion and the multiple levels of the film’s intricate plot.
Assessing Tenet from a purely visual perspective, it is readily apparent that Nolan improves upon the rewind scenes of Memento (2000). Once again, inverted bullets and distorted temporal timelines come into play, but this time, it’s all about the world of the physical, not metaphorical. What intrigues me most about Tenet is the stylistic approach Nolan employs to create video game-like visuals and character engagement. This may simply be reflective of modern influences upon Nolan or a purposeful attempt by him to create a product that resonates with younger viewers. The rewind techniques on display are akin to the video game franchises Prince of Persia and Max Payne. Even a scene featuring Neil and the protagonist catapulting up to the apartment of Sanjay Singh (Denzil Smith) is similar to the logic design featured in Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. Whether or not Nolan intended to have video game similarities isn’t certain, but the fact that the main character is called the Protagonist does set up the discussion.
Excellence in editing is essential for a film with time inversion. Jennifer Lame, longtime editor for director Noah Baumbach, skillfully delivers cohesive scenes of the past, present and future.
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During the Kyiv railroad interrogation, Lame’s edits cut the scene down to rapid precision and create a palpable sense of tension. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s careful use of claustrophobic close-ups and obscure angles as well as his focus of the camera on utilitarian objects add to the climactic payoff that’s in store. The handling of the Estonia Pärnu Highway and Laagna Road car chases is also impressive. Lame successfully vacillates between rapid car sequences and inverted car tailing. In this endeavor, Hoytema’s camera skills transcend the norm. The cinematographer takes Nolan’s theoretical mechanics and brings them to life. The first time Tenet viewers see Oslo through an inverted perspective, the aesthetics are more like Edvard Munch’s The Scream than the slow-motion car chases of The Matrix Reloaded (2003).
But it’s not all about inverted time flow; color and lighting are very impactful as well. For example, the blue-gray melancholic aura of the Kyiv Opera House sets the stage for mystery that is in the air. During the reveal of the inversion turnstile, Nolan displays intense red and blue color ushering in dream-like sensibilities. This application of blue and red color for opposing teams or forces also hints of a video game, such as the Halo series.
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For the sound design, Nolan’s approach reminds of filmmaker King Vidor and other filmmakers of the golden age of Hollywood who experimented with sound mixing and created an exuberant rhythm. Nolan immerses Tenet’s audience in loud, heart-pumping scenes. But, this methodology has drawbacks. For instance, in various scenes involving arms dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia) and the protagonist, otherwise impressive use of music and other sound elements that create a sense of tension overpower critical dialogue revealing major plot points. On a more positive note, Nolan creatively inverts the delivery of radio and phone communications as a new twist for time travel.
With Tenet, Nolan evolves as a surrealist director, yet his writing style does not similarly advance. The science lessons which Nolan imbeds in Tenet approach the point of annoyance, and this didacticism impairs the ease of the film’s delivery. For those who are not thrilled with Tenet, it’s important to remember that screenwriter Dan O’Bannon benefitted by building upon and correcting the flaws of Dark Star (1974) before he fully realized the ideas and execution of Alien.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.