Movie Review: Tenet (Spoiler-free)

The film that’s supposed to save the cinemas has finally arrived. TENET is starting to roll out to cities around the world that have reopened their cinemas and Christopher Nolan fans couldn’t be happier. Many were wondering if TENET would go to one of the streaming services, following many other films that have gone that route this year thanks to COVID-19, but Nolan and Warner Bros. decided to hold out for the big screen/big sound experience. Having now seen the film, I would have to agree with their decision. TENET needs to be seen on a big screen… that is, if you want to see it at all. Like most of Nolan’s films, TENET, with its time-bending story, is not going to appeal to everyone’s tastes. Even die-hard Nolan fans are probably going to walk out of TENET scratching their heads, wondering what they just saw. The fanboys and fangirls are going to love it even if they didn’t understand it. The rest of the audience will think it’s just a series of over-the-top set pieces tied to a convoluted story that defies conventional logic.

John David Washington (BLACKKKLANSMAN), plays a CIA agent who gets recruited into a secret organisation known as “Tenet”. Known only as the Protagonist, his mission is to… well, here’s where it starts getting dicey. After he learns about something called “inverted” entropy, which allows objects to move backwards through time, he traces some inverted bullets to Priya (Dimple Kapadia), an Indian arms dealer who informs him that the bullets were inverted by Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS; DUNKIRK; JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT). With the help of a very knowledgeable and resourceful contact named Neil (Robert Pattinson, GOOD TIME; the TWILIGHT franchise), the Protagonist stages a couple of spectacular heists involving some plutonium and an artefact from the future, which is part of a device known as “the algorithm” that Sator plans to set off when he dies. If Sator is successful, the planet will be destroyed. To complicate his mission further, the Protagonist gets himself entangled with Sator’s estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, WIDOWS), who must set aside her own reasons for wanting to see her husband dead until the Protagonist and Neil can stop Sator from getting his hands on all the components of the algorithm.

TENET is many things but most of all, it’s loud. Because the story is so convoluted, there is a lot of explaining going on – from the Tenet scientist who introduces the Protagonist to inverted entropy, to Priya, Sator and Neil. TENET isn’t Show & Tell though. It’s Tell & What did he just say? & Show. The score by Oscar®-winning composer Ludwig Göransson (BLACK PANTHER; TV’s THE MANDALORIAN) is so overpowering that you will be hard-pressed to make out what everyone is telling each other. I was reading the Chinese subtitles just to try to make sense out of the pseudo-science. Early on in the story, the Protagonist is advised not to try to understand how inverted entropy works. He should just accept that it does. That’s pretty sage advice for audiences too, as the story goes down such a rabbit hole of circular logic, if you spend time trying to understand it, you’ll miss out on the spectacle that rivals anything that we’ve seen James Bond do on screen.

Fortunately, both Washington and Pattinson are up for the task and make the film interesting to watch even if the story is frustratingly over-complicated. Nolan regular Michael Caine makes a cameo appearance as a British intelligence officer whose role only seems to be to advise the Protagonist to dress better. Himesh Patel (YESTERDAY) also has a cameo as Neil’s fixer, Mahir. I can’t remember if he had any lines but, if he did, I probably wouldn’t have been able to hear them over the sound mix.

TENET is not horrible by any means but it’s certainly divisive. The couple who next to me in the cinema walked out after 90 minutes. Many others at my screening were saying that they want to see the film again so that they can better understand the story. Though TENET is not Nolan’s best work, his fans won’t be disappointed. It certainly won’t win him any new ones though.

TENET opens in Hong Kong on Thursday. If you are planning on seeing it, make sure you choose a cinema that has a big screen and sit close to the back.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, September 11th, 8:30 am HK time!

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