THE SPECTACLE OF “TENET” DAZZLES AS IT ALSO BAFFLES
A Film Review by Tim Riley
“TENET” RATED PG-13 With films like “Inception” and “Interstellar” in his portfolio, writer and director Christopher Nolan has established himself as an auteur of cerebral and existential thrillers that seemingly defy the typical time and space continuum. Now along comes “Tenet,” an audacious journey through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time. Nolan resorts to inversion, reversing the natural order of things to move his story in a new dimension.
Time is an unalterable dynamic in our existence, but in the hands of Christopher Nolan, time becomes a compellingly controllable strand that is able to be bent, twisted, juxtaposed, or most tellingly, inverted. In his own words as reported in the press notes, the writer-director of “Tenet” claims, “The story takes on ideas of time and how we experience it – interacting a science fiction component with the classic elements of the spy genre.” As a reputed aficionado of the James Bond films, Nolan’s ambitious scope is to produce a global action thriller with one man in a secret organization trying to save the world from the deadly plans of an egomaniacal villain. That singular agent is only known as The Protagonist (John David Washington), apparently a CIA operative recruited by a mysterious intelligence group that puts him through a test for a promotion to a top-secret assignment that would be challenging even for Agent 007.
The action begins with a rather startling terrorist assault on an opera house in Kiev. The Protagonist has embedded himself as a double agent within the terror group with the objective of retrieving an unknown valuable property. The details of the mission are elusive but the execution of the heist is a pulse-pounding introduction to thrilling action that is heightened by the thunderous musical score of Ludwig Goransson that is every bit as bombastic as what you might expect from Hans Zimmer. Following this heist escapade, The Protagonist is teamed up with new British partner Neil (Robert Pattinson), an enigmatic figure about whom we learn so little that his background and previous affiliations remain undisclosed. The audience may wonder about Neil’s relationship to The Protagonist. Is he a comrade or a foe? How do we decide if this is someone to trust or should we be skeptical? What is before the audience for consideration are complicated matters on many levels.
The one thing that is abundantly clear is that the malevolent antagonist in this espionage thriller is Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a vicious Russian oligarch dealing arms that expose the world to the threat of annihilation. The quest to uncover sinister underground networks of international arms dealers and terrorists takes Neil and The Protagonist on journeys that may or may not be fruitful to the endgame. One such venture has the duo traveling to Mumbai where they scale the exterior of a high-rise building to the penthouse lair of arms dealer Priya (Indian actress Dimple Kapadia) who holds vital information about the Russian villain Sator.The Protagonist’s pathway to reaching Sator is through the oligarch’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) who is residing in London and taking care of their young son who is attending a private school.
Now that we have arrived this deep into the plot, we must reflect that what has transpired seems confusing. Indeed, the story is convoluted on many levels, and it helps little that much of the dialogue is hard to hear due to poor sound.The excitement is more visual than any conversation that takes place, with the possible exception of the chilling malice that oozes from the amoral, predatory Russian oligarch defined by his sadistic character. When the action kicks in, it’s really great, even during the instances where the science-fiction is layered in. A jet airliner barreling along the runaway for a direct hit on a building is one of the more linear set-pieces.
However, when a scientist (Clemence Poesy) introduces The Protagonist to bullets that go back in time, she says, “Don’t try to understand it.” Well, we may not fully grasp the meaning of this inversion either. Yet, the best part of non-linear action comes with an exciting car chase sequence on a highway with vehicles careening backwards and forwards, some of them flipping in the air and crashing spectacularly. During these uncertain times when movie theaters remain closed in parts of the nation, the salient question is whether “Tenet” should be considered a fitting candidate for home viewing. Apparently not for Christopher Nolan, and there are valid reasons why.
In keeping with his asymmetrical technique of storytelling and to amplify the immersive moviegoing experience, Nolan once again relies on IMAX cameras and large-format film to pull the audience deep into the story. “Tenet” is a sensory experience in visual and auditory terms that can only be gratified to the fullest extent on the big screen. Above all else, “Tenet” is a grand yet baffling spectacle that is incapable of being downsized to a living room flat screen.