Review: Tenet

Is the James Bond-style time travel action film worth risking your health for?

Tenet is the second Christopher Nolan movie that felt dangerous attending it in the cinema. Seeing it almost felt like an act of rebellion. Attendees on the opening weekend of his 2012 film The Dark Knight Rises undoubtedly felt nervous following the shooting massacre on the opening night of the film in a Colorado cinema. There had been concern of copycat incidents. And that same sense of unease is felt again now in 2020 with every person sitting in the theatre of his latest movie Tenet must be wondering the same thing to themselves: is this movie worth the price of COVID-19?

The experience of seeing Tenet will forever be connected with the virus that has impacted us all. Tenet is the film that was set to mark the re-opening of cinemas - the big box office draw that would be so enticing that it would bring audiences back to the cinema. COVID be damned. And so the weight placed on this movie is incredible: Is Tenet so good that it is worth risking possible death for?

There’s two things you need to know:

  1. It’s really very good

  2. There’s a strong chance you won’t understand what on earth is happening through the entire movie. To properly understand the plot of the film… you’re going to need to watch Tenet more than once.

Ahead of the release of Tenet there had been some conjecture on whether the movie is connected to Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception. If such a direct connection exists, it escaped the attention of this reviewer. While these are two distinct stories, both look and feel strikingly similar.

Inception played with dream logic and spatial physics as its protagonists moved between different levels of consciousness, with Tenet interested in moving its protagonists between levels of temporal perception. Characters aren’t being bounced around on screen by physical motion happening beyond their understanding of reality in Tenet, rather we’re watching physical movement impacted by their understanding of how time is impacting the characters and objects on-screen. There are moments where you are watching movement happen in reverse at the same time as other movement is happening in forward linear progression.

If that sounds confusing, expect a whole bunch of headaches as you watch Tenet. This is a movie that takes time travel more seriously than just sending its characters to an alternate 1985. This film is “heavy”.

The story told by Tenet is straight out of a James Bond paperback. John David Washington is a joy to watch as a dedicated CIA agent who has been sent after a Russian arms trader (Kenneth Branagh) who is involved with a weapon that is more deadly than your standard nuclear bomb. The mission takes us through gorgeous locales, impossible missions (there’s a fun moment involving a bungee-cord), and we’re introduced to a potentially dangerous femme fatale in the form of Elizabeth Debicki. The only additional complication is Christopher Nolan completely subverting the viewers expectation on how physics and linear storytelling works.

While the comparisons to Inception will widely be made by reviewers and audiences alike, the film exists firmly within Nolan’s pre-existing fascination with non-linear storytelling. Going right back to his first film Momento which played every scene in the mystery film in backwards-order, and right through to 2017’s Dunkirk, Nolan has been fascinated by toying with viewers relationship between linear time and on-screen storytelling.

To suggest that you won’t understand the movie is overstating things somewhat. General audiences will go into the film and have a great time with it and kind-of get what is taking place. But there are delicious plot twists and turns that demand multiple viewings. Or in the very least a clued-up friend who can explain it all to you in the cineplex carpark after.

It would be generous to call the film a masterpiece, but Tenet is great big screen popcorn entertainment that will thrill and delight audiences. Like all Nolan films, Tenet is best-served on the biggest screen you can find with incredible sound. A TV experience will diminish your enjoyment of this film designed to be brainy spectacle.

As for whether great entertainment is worth risking your health…

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