[Review] ‘TENET’ – Nolan welcomes back the theatrical experience with more explosive head games

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

TENET

Rated PG-13, 150 minutes.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David WashingtonRobert PattinsonElizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kenneth Branagh, Clémence Poésy, Fiona Dourif, Himesh Patel, Martin Donovan and Michael Caine

Note from the writer: I was invited to view Tenet at Cinemark 17 IMAX in Dallas, TX, with five other local press members. It was the first film screened that day. The staff at Cinemark 17 made attendees feel comfortable and welcome. Masks were required when viewing the film, and hand sanitizer stations were available at numerous locations. Before making plans to see Tenet, please look up your local theater’s Coronavirus safety protocols.

God bless Christopher Nolan. There are not many filmmakers who can successfully challenge a viewer within the mainstream framework and create some of the most memorable cinema history moments. Flipping a semi-truck or rotating a hallway, anyone? Nolan keeps the theatrical experience’s blood pumping. He’s the very reason we butter our popcorn.

Nolan’s latest masterstroke, Tenet, starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, is another cerebral puzzle of epic proportions. Your mind will run a marathon as your eyes will drink in images never before seen from its pulse-pounding opening to its explosive conclusion.

As with any Nolan film, the plot is always held pretty close to the filmmaker’s vest. He wants to protect the secrets, and with good reason. Nolan’s movies are rides that should be discovered because half of the fun is the conversations that you’ll have afterward. “What does this mean?” — “What’s the true significance of that character?” — “That ending? Where do we even begin breaking it down?”

What little plot I can reveal involves Washington’s secret agent (of sorts) who embarks on a dangerous mission to help smother the seeds of World War III. Reality as we know it is no longer concrete. Brawls and car chases happen in real-time and backward motion simultaneously. Walls spit bullets out back into guns. Fire and cinder blocks are sucked inside buildings just as fast as it would have pushed them out. The list goes on as you slowly (and perhaps forever) fit the pieces together.

Washington carries his commanding presence over from 2018’s BlackKklansman and injects it into a character, merely (and humorously) known as “Protagonist,” who is equal parts James Bond and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb from Inception. He figures out the rules of this brave new world just as the audience does, but he does it with such confidence and vigor that you’re with him every step of the way.

Pattinson has already cooked up a storm on the internet with his quarantine diet sharings and cape and cowl in next year’s The Batman. As Protagonist’s sidekick in the mission to save the world, he continues to impress and mask any sight of his former vampiric sparkles. Pattinson’s charm is ever-present in Tenet as he hashes out an elaborate plan to crash a plane. Not from the air, though, because it would be “too dramatic.” (A possible Dark Knight Rises jab?) The dynamic between him and Washington is the power of the film.

Admittedly, Tenet is front-loaded with information. After the opening action sequence, you are hosed with many conversations about physics and the inverted reality that you will struggle to keep up for the first hour. However, once the dots show themselves, it slowly begins to click. To some, this may be too tall of a patience order, but trust me, rewards come aplenty. This is why all of Nolan’s works demand multiple viewings, and Tenet easily does.

Another significant component of the film’s success is Ludwig Göransson’s booming musical score. With this, The Mandalorian and his Oscar-winning work on Black Panther, Göransson is officially in the hall of fame. He takes beats from composers like Hans Zimmer (who is Nolan’s go-to guy, but he’s busy with the new adaptation of Dune) and experiments with them in fascinating ways. There are times when it sounds like Göransson also is playing with the motion of instruments. Some tracks feel like a vacuum sucking up drumsticks lying on a snare. It’s not simply playing a track in reverse. Something tells me, much like Nolan did with the choreography and speaking on set, Göransson had his team learn how to play songs as if they’re in reverse. Breathtaking.

Amid the spectacle and big performances (especially Kenneth Branagh chewing up the scenery as a Russian baddie), the emotional current doesn’t flow as strong. Humor and emotion never really have been Nolan’s area of expertise. Nolan is a master of utilizing practical effects and Stanley Kubrick-like imagery to pull you into his mentally stimulating worlds. Except for Matthew McConaughey’s crying scene in Interstellar, your heart beats primarily from the intensity Nolan incorporates into his narratives and not so much from the emotional drive. The single moment that manages to produce a tear in Tenet comes from Washington’s gifts as an actor. He can paint a picture worth a thousand words. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Tenet is more than just a greatest hits record of Nolan’s filmography. There’s so much going on that you’ll be sharing theories for years to come. While the times may be scary in our world, I hope that sooner or later (hopefully they do a massive re-release down the road), you’ll soak up every ounce of awesome that Tenet is.

Grade: B+

TENET is now playing only in theaters.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.