Here’s how I put it: The Big Short, an amazing movie but one that takes repeated viewings to understand the way it needs you to, is easier to comprehend than this. Both of these movies require you to be fully awake and ready to nonetheless get lost, something most movies don’t aim for in fear of annoying their audience, but is also something a few movies do and succeed for that exact reason.
Now, describing this movie’s going to be a light headache. Tenet is the name of a secret organization, a mixture of military and science, both deep underground from outside eyes. The movie opens up with a military raid in a live opera house, only able to be done by putting something in the air that causes the entire audience to go to an immediate and deep sleep. One of the guys isn’t actually part of the ambush; he’s actually in disguise trying to sabotage the mission, and in the middle of it he witnesses, or at least we witness, it’s not completely clear, someone being un-shot from a wound. We see him shot, and shortly after his body falls back up and the bullet goes back through him, as well as all the blood.
The soldier, played by John David Washington, ends up being sent to Tenet where he learns about inverted objects, meaning not only can they travel backward in time, but they can redo their historical movements and actions. For instance, if you tape someone dropping a book on the floor, and you play the recording backwards, it’s of you sticking your hand out and the book flying up to you. Now imagine that book with the memory of being tossed can sense the action of someone putting their hand up, and it flies to them. Yeah, I’m still not quite sure of how it’s exactly supposed to work. But let’s just say, this ability to control time could destroy the world, either from being in the hands of someone who could use it to rule said world, or one of those major paradoxes Doc Brown is always nervous about. The Protagonist’s team, of Elizabeth Debicki and Robert Pattinson, have to try to invert current events and steer the continuum properly, unless it already has and it’s more like they have to know how to stay alive if they’re killed.
Hope that was a good enough description.
Confession time: The only other two Christopher Nolan films I’ve seen are The Dark Knight Rises & Dunkirk. Rises was a blast, Dunkirk far from it. I’ve also seen the spinning hallway sequence from Inception, which had its tenth anniversary two months ago, and from that, I got the impression it would exemplify Nolan as a filmmaker confident in moviemaking that most investors would laugh out. If that’s the case, Nolan’s proved himself again on that front. But only in one specific way and not in others.
When I saw Dunkirk, I overheard everyone saying it was the next generation’s Saving Private Ryan. As that is a movie on my Top 5 favourite films ever, period, I had high expectations, and they immensely crashed. The simple fact why was, I didn’t care about a single character. I barely even heard what some of them were saying. Some could say it’s the filmmaking that’s the real star, but for me, characters are the soul, the main driving force of everything.
It was sadly the same thing in this movie. The only thing keeping me invested was the possibility of seeing more creative special effects, and fortunately, the movie is just fast paced enough to keep the action scenes coming, and considering this is a 150-minute feature, I wasn’t expecting that. Creative-choreography wise, the movie massively succeeds. If something during an action scene doesn’t seem to quite make sense, chances are you’ll see it again later from a different point of view and angle.
Then there’s also soldiers with breathing masks on who go through time as it goes backwards at the same regular speed of light. Usually in time travel stories, the journey is instantaneous for the traveller because, well, it’s time travel, but not here. Travellers would also usually leave a trinket in the past or future for someone of that timeline to find, but in Tenet, it’s more like a sophisticated way of communicating between time periods.
Suffice it to say, this is wildly original work. When’s the last time you heard about someone having to make a person completely believe they’ve won, and that’s just the mission for half of the squad? Or the last time you saw a soldier in a destroyed building and it reattaches itself, therefore trapping him in a freshly-fixed wall?
But back to the characters, sadly. Washington as “The Protagonist” creates the most fascinating of the bunch, considering his commitment to protecting his allies. However, Debicki as the love interest who’s brave and kickass has very little else to her name. Robert Pattinson’s character has a different name, but really, his name should have just been Robert Pattinson. Kenneth Branagh as the main antagonist was massively weak. He was emotionless, dreamless, smug, in other words, typical. We want to see him fail, but our hearts don’t fill with rage upon seeing him.
Tenet’s concept of time contemporarily rewinding makes for action that’s both fun and bonkers, but it’s also overlong, kind of anemic, and its plot is intricate to the point of incomprehensibility unless you’re fully invested in every single character and story section, which is hard to do when you’re not emotionally connected to the characters. It has most fun when it’s not explaining itself, so it’s maybe best to not try to understand it. But if that’s the case, it shouldn’t have tried to be so intricate to begin with.