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MOVIES: Tenet - Review

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Author's Note: There are no major plot spoilers in this review but for those looking for a fresh experience, it's recommended going in as blind as possible.

Unhinged may have been the first major movie to open in cinemas post their reopening, but it’s the delayed Tenet that is billed as the saviour of cinema, the movie that will get everyone back to their seats and salvage the cinema industry with a staggered cinema release date that means it is still waiting on its US release date. The cast is impressive and as big a draw as they come – John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Himesh Patel and Kenneth Branagh are among the stars of this multi-million-dollar blockbuster from a director who’s renowned for his practical effects and stuntwork. If there’s one thing you can’t criticise Nolan for is that he knows how to make films that best capture the big screen experience, and Tenet is a movie that absolutely demands you see it on the biggest screen you possibly can – deafening audiences with its loud sound system to the point where the dialogue almost becomes noneligible.

“Tenet” is a word that will open the right doors, but some of the the wrong ones too. It's what John David Washington’s character – someone so bland he’s literally just referred to as “the protagonist” in the script and by the dialogue – is told early on at the start of his mission into the unknown, into a film where the rules of time are reversed. But instead as something as simple as time travel, the film instead labels it as “inversion”, where you are still in control of your own actions and Nolan invents a complex system that has to be seen to be believed. The stakes, he establishes early on, are high – it’s a race to save Earth from a fate worse than a nuclear holocaust, and The Protagonist soon finds himself caught in the middle of ruthless arms dealers in an effort to save the day. With all the blockbuster feel of the movie, it keeps its espionage-fuelled tone throughout, largely limiting its action to the shadows apart from some truly stellar set-pieces. Nolan has often been linked to the James Bond franchise, but if anything, this is a movie that feels more like a Mission Impossible film, and it’s easy to see why someone like Tom Cruise – in that ad – would like a movie like this. But unfortunately, if Tenet was part of either franchise, it wouldn’t be one of the better entries.

The problems are tenfold, it’s a film that feels like the “most” Christopher Nolan film yet where both his flaws and strengths as a director and writer are amplified. Bad exposition-heavy dialogue makes up for a good 70% of the script, and the plot feels purely driven by A-to-B storytelling that combined, allows for precious little character development. I was just left feeling cold and emotionally distant, and this is from someone who didn’t feel like Nolan’s previous effort, wartime drama Dunkirk, was emotionally distant in the slightest. I couldn’t connect with any of the characters in this movie and Nolan never gave me a reason to care, which is where I believe Inception succeeded – yes it also had dialogue heavy script, but you cared about the characters. Here, you just don’t. The actors’ performances are good, but the dialogue became increasingly hollow and empty as it progressed – Kenneth Branagh’s stereotypical villain blurts out heavily cliched lines that you’d expect from a bad James Bond parody, and he’s a far cry from Batman’s rogue gallery in The Dark Knight trilogy, easily Nolan’s weakest villain to date.

Aside from Branagh, the cast do their best for the most part with a couple of exceptions. John David Washington is excellent bringing plenty of charisma to the table that’s enough to carry whole franchises, Robert Pattinson as the Nolan self-insert character is on fire as he signals his return to blockbusters in grand fashion as befitting of one of the best actors currently working and Elizabeth Debicki makes the absolute most out of an underwritten role where she is criminally wasted for a good half of the movie. However outside of the central trio, things start to fall apart - the Michael Caine/ Nolan collaboration is resurrected for the total of five minutes (literally quicker than it takes to order food at a restaurant) where Caine just feels like he’s delivering his lines for the first time as he’s reading them. Himseh Patel and Clémence Poésy are both there, but they’re just there, and never get any substantial material to work with.

For all his flaws that shine through here, nobody can do high-concept storytelling like Christopher Nolan and the plot is the film’s biggest strength. Its concept is fascinating, one of the most original time-travel concepts that you’ve seen on the big screen in a while, and you’ll be left thinking about it for days afterwards, regardless of whether or not you liked the film. Tenet has the staying power; it has the star factor. Without going into spoilers, the finale is unforgettable and more than delivers on the stakes building up to it. It’s all about the payoff in Tenet, and whilst the journey there is full of hits and misses, it’s the third act where Nolan brings his A-Game to the table and truly rivals Inception in its execution.

It’s more than enough to make up for everything that followed before it, a bombastic assault on the senses that you won’t be able to tear your eyes away from. Not once – to this film’s credit, was I left feeling bored in Tenet, despite its rather lengthy 150-minute runtime, and watching it in the last showing when I was already exhausted after work. It kept my attention hooked throughout and emerges as pure anxiety inducing cinema in the way that Nolan does best. The spectacle will never not be something to experience on the big screen when you do it safely and when normalcy returns, I hope Tenet gets another theatrical run for a wide audience who can see it and make their own opinions on the film.

But unfortunately, there are too many flaws in Tenet to truly praise it. As someone who liked all of Nolan’s other releases that he’s given us so far (including The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar), It’s the director's most disappointing to date – even if it’d be wrong to call it bad. My conflicted thoughts best put it across as a movie that feels somewhere in the middle ground, but it’s a film that’s likely to divide opinion and just as much as there are some who are going to hate it, there are those who are going to adore it. Given that I’ve seen every Nolan movie bar Following multiple times I’m almost certainly going to have to revisit this one to fully collect my thoughts, so despite this initial review, my opinion could change on Tenet going forward, and I really hope it’s something that I eventually grow to like. But for now, it’s all plot, all high concept – with little else to show for it.

You can watch the trailer for Tenet here.

Tenet is currently airing in cinemas now.

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