It feels like an eternity since I was last in a theater, watching the trailer for Tenet. In reality, it’s been a long six months. Unlike the characters in Christopher Nolan’s latest film, I don’t have the luxury of being able to alter the past. As a critic, though, I may be able to alter somebody’s future. If you’re reading this review, you probably want to know if it’s safe to return to the movies. The IMAX where I watched Tenet was filled at no more than 25% capacity, audience members were spread out, and everybody was wearing masks, from what I could see. If you’re not ready to go back to theaters, you shouldn’t feel pressured. If you’re longing for the big screen’s warm embrace, however, it’s arguably safer than most work environments.
Of course, the real question is if Tenet is worth the trip to the cinema. The answer is a resounding yes! There’s been an ongoing debate concerning “big screen movies” vs. “small screen movies.” I’ve always believed that every great film deserves to be seen on the big screen, whether it was produced for $200 million or $2 million. In a COVID-19 world, however, studios have understandably needed to be more selective. Saving Tenet for theaters was a good call, though, and watching the film will remind you why we’ve all missed the cinematic experience.
John David Washington plays the Protagonist. Literally, that’s what his character is called throughout the film. Although that sounds basic, the plot is anything but. After proving his worth, the Protagonist is recruited to prevent a future world war via time travel. There isn’t a DeLorean or telephone booth that takes the Protagonist back in time, however. Rather, his journey begins with bullets that’ve had their entropy “inverted” to travel back in time. This soon leads the Protagonist to a beautiful art auctioneer (Elizabeth Debicki), an arms trafficker (Dimple Kapadia), and the man who may bring about this disastrous future (Kenneth Branagh). Never too far away from the Protagonist is his handler Neil, played by a scene-stealing Robert Pattinson.
To describe Tenet as a time travel movie would hardly do it justice. In most movies about the subject, time is like a straight line. In Tenet, time is more like an evidence connections chart and the red thread is constantly being moved around. From Memento, to Inception, to Dunkirk, Nolan has never been one to tell a straightforward narrative. This isn’t the only Nolanism to be found here, as the story also comes complete with men in fancy suits, an increasingly complicated plot, and (of course) Michael Caine. Like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, Nolan utilizes his trademarks so well that’ve yet to grow overly familiar. The only one that’s starting to wear out its welcome is the Hans Zimmer “braaam” sound effect, which constantly fights its way into composer Ludwig Göransson’s score. Otherwise, Nolan continues his streak of exhilarating, mind-bending entertainment.
Once again, Nolan’s reliance on practical effects and stunt work make for several extraordinary action sequences. The highlight is quite possibly the best highway chase since The Matrix Reloaded, as well as the best car chase since Mad Max: Fury Road. It also might be Nolan’s most ambitious set-piece since Inception’s hallway fight. With Dunkirk, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema made the audience feel as if they were engaged in combat. In Tenet, he makes the audience feel like they’ve been sent to another plane of existence where the impossible is a reality.
Outside of his Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has kept most of his movies self-contained. Memento brought Leonard Shelby’s story full circle and Inception left Dom Cobb on a perfectly ambiguous note. Some may argue that Tenet works better as a standalone story as well, but the conclusion leaves so much room for further exploration. While the ending is a satisfying one nonetheless, this is Nolan’s first original property that has me eager for a follow-up. Whether this the beginning or the end, Tenet is another step forward for Nolan… or backward depending on how you look at it.