While some may have soured on Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker over the years, particularly in his vigorous defence of the cinema as the primary place in which to enjoy big, bold movies such as his own, it's simply impossible to deny his significance in the modern film space. Not only is he an auteur, with instantly recognisable cinematic characteristics, but he's also one of the few directors left that can command large-scale budgets on movies that have no connection between one another, and that have no footing in comic book, video game or superhero lore. He wears his inspirations on his sleeve, sure, but he remains a yardstick, and through the Batman trilogy, Inception, Interstellar, and finally Dunkirk, he has built an undeniably strong back catalogue of triumphs.
The question now is: can Tenet maintain this momentum? The movie itself has been shrouded in secrecy, as is Nolan's way generally, but the vagueness in which the movie has been presented has reached new heights, offering up very little to get movie-goers excited, beyond the cast, and the director of course. But Tenet has a lot riding on it, because not only must it maintain the aforementioned momentum, it must also drive cautious consumers back into theatres. It's the jump-start the entire industry is waiting for, so can it deliver the goods?
While Tenet has been shrouded in mystery, battle-hardened Nolan fans will pretty much know exactly what they're getting into. The colour palette is muted, the characters are cogs in a larger narrative machine rather than faceted individuals, the action sequences are spectacularly constructed and executed, and originality and genre traits are masterfully mixed together. This is a Nolan picture, through and through.
Giving away much of what is actually going on though, would be to siphon away some of the energy that Nolan and his team have worked so hard to preserve, so all we'll say is that an unnamed CIA agent played by John David Washington is recruited into a mysterious organization called Tenet, which must stop World War III from occurring, and that involves learning the ins and outs of so-called "Time Inversion", a technique that involves reversing the flow of time... in real-time... time.
The point is that just like Inception mixed a heist action movie with dreamscapes, Tenet mixes international espionage with time reversion; this is not the first time Nolan takes certain genre tropes and expertly blends them with science-fiction. Tenet succeeds here, albeit in some rather familiar ways. The cast works excellently to anchor the experience, giving us rather relatable points of contact, something that's necessary with its brisk pace, reliance on mystery, and scrambled chronology. In particular, John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Kenneth Branagh turn in excellent performances. However, as previously stated, Nolan often uses characters for plot progression more-so than to realise them as... well, people. The fact that John David Washington's character remains nameless the entire film, speaks for itself. While some may like this very plot-centric approach, it does feel slightly less intuitive than both Interstellar and Dunkirk, where Nolan gave us his most emotionally poignant movies to date, and his most clinical.
That said, Tenet does work because of its spectacle. From start to finish one can tell that we're dealing with a master here. And the film does boast some incredible action work, action that does not utilise special effects at all, but rather settles for car crashes and bungee jumps - in reverse mind you. One fight scene where John David Washington must fend off an enemy that is fighting in reverse is particularly breathtaking in terms of how it was shot and produced. It serves to show that it's not only in CG that movie magic can spring to life - it's still out there.
So while this is standard Nolan fair, it's also a wholly original new idea that has been given the time, and the budget to thrive, and thrive it does. But it's far from perfect. For one, it does seem like Nolan loses himself ever so slightly in the scrambled nature of his story, and in the way that the audience is meant to understand the mechanics of time reversal. At one point, one character simply states to another character that one shouldn't try to fully understand it, which seems like a message for the audience as well.
Furthermore, despite the idea being original, the familiarity mentioned at the top does breed contempt. Sure, Nolan fans will appreciate his signature style, but despite this honing in on classic espionage cinema, one can easily trace every element back to previous films, from Memento to Batman Begins, from Dunkirk to (especially) Inception. In fact, more cynical movie-goers could easily dismiss Tenet as being "time+espionage", where Inception is "dreams+heist", so similar are the movies in their respective approaches to surpassing audience expectations.
So, it would seem that Nolan is at a crossroads here, where it's pretty obvious that next time, he must find ways in which he can innovate, or at least refine his unmistakable eye for awe-inspiring cinematic sequences in a way that breaks the mould. That does not change the fact however, that Tenet is pleasant, thrilling, well-constructed and obviously made by a man who knows his stuff. Nolan is still an auteur, he's still a pillar of modern action-movie making, and he should be revered for that, and Tenet does continue his legacy. However, hopefully, he'll serve up something more... weird, next time.
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