Maria Cunningham reviews Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bending blockbuster.
Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the first major blockbuster to be released since lockdown, is quite simply an incredible film. Nolan continuously manages to come out with ground-breaking pieces of cinema, and the film is in keeping with his track-record of mind-boggling, impressive films. This film is Nolan’s Bond: taking the elements of Bond that we love, and putting Nolan’s jaw-dropping, complex twists on it.
Tenet’s main theme is ‘inversion’, a temporal concept used to explain the backwards movement of objects in time. In it, John David Washington’s character (the unnamed Protagonist) attempts to investigate the strange new black-market technology of ‘inverting the entropy’ of people and objects in the hope of preventing the apocalypse, which is later revealed to be called the ‘Algorithm’ – a piece of technology that could catastrophically invert the entire world.
From the beginning, the audience is plunged into a whirlwind world of action and deceit. After a failed siege, a secret organisation known as Tenet is revealed to the Protagonist, which operates around saving the human race from the end of the world. Barbara (Clemence Posey), a scientist, explains the concept of inversion to him using reversed bullets, which shoot back into the gun from a wall with the words ‘You’re not throwing the bullet. You’re catching it” – and it is from here that we are thrust into the central narrative of the film.
The film’s heart lies in a conflict between two narrative threads. Firstly, you have the Protagonist and Neil (Robert Pattinson) – the charming and soft-spoken second to Washington’s character who comes up with brilliant and wacky plans, resembling a character from Oceans Eleven dropped in a straight-faced action film. The second thread is the abusive and loveless marriage of arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), which is heartbreaking and intimate, and the possibility of their involvement in the manufacturing of the technology.
The different acts are structured brilliantly, and evoke very different moods. The first act is relatively slow paced and mainly focuses on intimate conversations and exposition. The lighting and cinematography is relatively soft during the conversation scenes, representing the intimacy and importance of these characters and what they are revealing. Nolan structures the second act in a much more brash way – everything becomes much harsher and more complex to follow, but the the spy scenes are regardless are effortlessly and smoothly carried out.
This juxtaposes the third act, which is dark, action-paced, and deliberately confusing to follow. The lighting and visual effects are phenomenal and serve to highlight the chaos. Inverted scenes are lit with a red glow and juxtaposed with the blue lighting that dictates the forward passage of time. One of the best scenes in the film is an intense interrogation scene featuring Kat, the Protagonist and Sator. The lighting and cinematography of this scene is fantastic, with the interrogation happening both in the inverted and forward timeline, the red and blue lighting of the rooms highlighting the different timeframes – a very confusing and intense scene. It is the time inversion scenes like this that make Tenet a cinematic masterpiece, especially considering the majority of scenes were created by practical effects. The ‘time inversion’ sequences were captured in both forward and backward mobility, with practical effects and real explosions also used where necessary – including shots of buildings exploding, and then imploding due to inversion. Inverted scenes were filmed with the inverted characters separate from the others, and the footage reversed and edited back onto the rest of the footage; an old technique, but one that is incredibly effective, especially when compared and seen in a different perspective later in the film. It is this that makes the film chaotic and confusing at times, but the film merely requires a bit of patience.
Despite all the complicated action sequences, character relationships and development are also important to this film and part of why it is enjoyable beyond the technical and philosophical complexities. A standout moment in the film is an intimate conversation between the Protagonist and Kat in a restaurant, where Kat explains how she is ‘trapped’ in her marriage, and is not allowed to see her son often. The writing is soft but fast-paced, and juxtaposed with beautifully-shot scenes of her last attempt to keep the marriage alive – a romantic moment on a yacht in Vietnam. The way the Robert Pattison and Elizabeth Debecki develop their characters throughout the film are inspiring; Neil is revealed to be a much more competent and involved character than his first disarming appearance would suggest, and Kat grows into a very strong female character, who is integral to the plot and to the plans to prevent the apocalypse. This transition is unexpected, yet welcome, as she rises from a trapped lonely woman to something much more, yet still keeps her femininity and her own motivations and character, instead of being regulated to a background character.
This film is, at its core, an action film. The score, often deafening at times adds to the whirlwind of narrative and action that the audience gets swept into. Again, Nolan has surpassed expectations, and created a niche for himself in the spy action genre with a film that never fails to surprise, enthrall and excite, and marvel at the depth of his imagination and talent. The film’s plot has many complexities and to be fully understood should be given a second viewing, but the film is enjoyable on a personal level even without fully understanding its technicalities. It leaves you wanting more from the characters and the plot, but in a very tantalizing way that you know you’ve only seen a glimpse of this world, and that maybe this mystery is what makes the film so spectacular.