Few films have faced a higher-stakes release than Tenet. Not just the latest project from the last filmmaker with the clout to get original, superhero-budget blockbusters greenlit, Tenet finally arrives after multiple setbacks with an unprecedented task ahead of it: the salvation of cinemas themselves. Of course, no single film will be responsible for bringing an entire industry back from the brink, but after two and a half hours in the thrall of Christopher Nolan’s staggeringly ambitious brain-bender it’s clear why PVOD was never an option. A monumental big-screen spectacle, Tenet is a film that perfectly exemplifies what makes the cinema experience – in all its heart-stopping grandeur – quite so special.
Shrouded in enough secrecy to make Marvel Studios look loose-lipped, Tenet quickly emerges as a new spin on precisely the kind of cerebral sci-fi actioner that Nolan has come to specialise in. BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington stars as The Protagonist, an American agent with a particular set of skills who’s recruited (following a breathless prologue seen by some before IMAX screenings of Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker) to stop Kenneth Branagh’s odious Anglo-Russian oligarch Andrei Sator from unleashing World War 3. Quite how he plans to achieve this deserves to be discovered on screen (to be honest, we couldn’t adequately explain it if we tried), but it’s no spoiler to say it involves the ‘inversion’ of time – an ingenious central conceit that pushes Nolan’s multi-faceted, career-long exploration of temporal storytelling to its logical and inspired extreme.
Perhaps buoyed by the confidence that audiences will follow wherever he leads them, Nolan’s intimidatingly dense script obstinately avoids handholding, asking audiences to take a leap of faith to a greater extent than ever before. At times, Tenet can feel like a $200m remake of Primer, with a fiendishly brilliant but confounding narrative that practically demands one or two rewatches to fully appreciate the big picture. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” Clémence Poésy’s scientist says early doors. It doubles as a message to viewers, the most dedicated of which will be unpacking the film’s many intricacies for months to come.
- You can also listen to Total Film's Tenet review on the latest episode of our podcast, Inside Total Film!
Though a follow-up to 2017’s dialogue-lite sensory gauntlet Dunkirk, Tenet’s closest companion is 2010’s Inception. And just as Nolan took a heist movie and dreamt a little bigger (darling), Tenet expands the horizons of the espionage genre. Between pyrotechnics, characters are just as likely to casually ruminate on theoretical physics as they are to plan their latest operation. Not that it’s dry. Nolan’s self-penned script can be surprisingly playful: “[The British] have a controlling interest in snobbery,” quips good luck charm Michael Caine during an all-too-brief appearance. These talky interludes are never less than supremely slick, but they rarely rise above functional, as concentrated exposition whizzes by without quite the same elegance or intrigue of Nolan’s very best writing.
The set-pieces, however, are another matter entirely. The credits prominently and proudly state that Tenet was “shot and finished on film”, and in every respect this is a film that deserves to be experienced at its intended scale. Establishing shots of vertiginous Italian cliff faces or Mumbai skyscrapers inspire more genuine awe than anything in the entire runtime of most tentpoles. In 70mm IMAX it’s an overwhelming assault on the senses, one bolstered by Ludwig Göransson’s propulsive, rib-cage-rattling score, which itself plays with time in compelling ways.
The much-discussed Oslo airport sequence – for which Nolan crashed a real 747 – may be dazzling, but it’s an amuse-bouche compared to what comes afterwards. When Nolan finally plays the ace up his sleeve and fully unleashes ‘inversion’, it’s pure magic. At a time when the work of VFX wizards can make (almost) anything possible on screen, Nolan’s commitment to shooting practically achieves an effect akin to first seeing the T-Rex stomp onscreen in Jurassic Park – it’s a film that shows you the impossible in a way that’s indistinguishable from reality.
Whether there’s anything here that will prove as indelible as Inception’s rotating corridor or The Dark Knight’s truck flip only time will tell, but its central concept is so wonderfully cinematic it’s surprising that no one has attempted it at this scale till now. But as Tenet continues to up the ante, and early head-scratchers transform into euphoric revelations, it becomes clear that the reason no one has tried is that only Christopher Nolan could possibly conceive and execute something with this level of mind-melting complexity.
Tenet can be a bewildering experience as a result – the polar opposite of the easily digestible comic book extravaganzas that have dominated cinemas for the last decade. In keeping several key characters enigmas throughout – especially Washington’s Protagonist, who doesn’t even get a name – it relies heavily on the charisma of its cast in lieu of backstory and character development. And while Washington lives up to his billing in early teasers as a new kind of hero, with physicality to match his easy charm, Pattinson puts forward a strong case for his casting as Bruce Wayne, deploying dapper swagger as the capable and faithful Neil.
Where Nolan does invest in human drama is with Branagh’s Sator – a character so venomous and menacing he stands alongside Heath Ledger’s Joker as a character you can’t quite believe Nolan snuck into a 12A. At one point he explains, in graphic detail, a process of testicular-torture that would make Bond blush, while his nauseating relationship with Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat correctly comes with a content warning for domestic abuse from the BBFC, so disturbing is the (mostly implied) violence. He’s a truly nasty piece of work and one of Nolan’s more memorable antagonists. Kat is a less successful creation in comparison. She’s ably performed, no question, with Debicki fully committed to the wringer Nolan puts her through, but she veers dangerously close to damsel territory, all too often in need of saving when her proximity to the action could allow her more agency.
As should be clear by now, Tenet is a practically perfect (re)introduction to the big screen. Whether audiences are ready – where safe – to return to cinemas en masse is another question entirely. Certainly, Tenet’s a more challenging film than some may be comfortable with after a five-month absence, but this is an all-too-rare example of a master filmmaker putting everything on the table with, you sense, not a modicum of his vision compromised. The stakes have never been higher, but Tenet is exactly the film cinemas need right now.
Tenet is in cinemas August 26 in the UK, September 4 in the US.