The Movie Waffler New to Prime Video - TENET | The Movie Waffler

New to Prime Video - TENET

tenet review
A special agent is tasked with investigating a global threat involving the manipulation of time.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel, Martin Donovan

tenet movie poster

It's safe to say that Christopher Nolan is a little obsessed with time. His breakout film, 2000's Memento, played its scenes in reverse chronological order. With 2010's over-rated bore Inception he gave us parallel set-pieces running in different timelines - "reality" time and that of a dream world. His under-rated 2014 sci-fi drama Interstellar saw an astronaut father miss out on his children growing up because hours in space equated to years on Earth. Nolan's best and most recent work, 2017's Dunkirk, ingeniously employed three different timelines, all running concurrently to give us three separate perspectives on the real life event it portrayed.

Nolan's temporal obsession continues with Tenet, perhaps his most extravagant exploration of time yet. The film itself struggles somewhat to convey its premise clearly, so it's going to be difficult for me to sum it up, but (deep breath) here goes...

tenet movie review

After proving his worth during a siege at the Kiev opera house, in which he witnesses the strange phenomenon of bullets seeming to move backwards in time, a special agent (John David Washington, whose character comes to be known only as "The Protagonist") for an international counter-terrorism task force is recruited for the most top secret of top secret missions. A Q-esque scientist (Clémence Poésy) introduces him to the concept of "inversion". "Inverted" artefacts, which have travelled back from some point in the future, such as bullets that return to gun chambers after being fired, have been popping up around the world at the scenes of various terrorist and criminal operations. It seems someone in the future has harnessed the power to travel back in time and manipulate events that have already taken place.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Crimes of the Future ]

Teaming with a very laidback and very British agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist follows the crumbs to Russian arms dealer Andrei Stor (Kenneth Branagh, rehashing his dodgy accent from Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit). To get close to Stor, The Protagonist uses Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who like Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, is being held in Stor's abusive thrall by the threat of never being able to see her son again if she leaves the relationship.

tenet movie review

Despite its heady integration of temporal physics, Tenet is essentially a reworking of the James Bond/Mission Impossible template, with a secret agent finding himself in a host of scenic locations as he follows a series of leads on his quest to locate a macguffin that threatens our existence. Eschewing green screen and CG, Nolan creates practical set-pieces that will have you dreaming about the results of a potential future collaboration with Tom Cruise. An extended sequence around the mid-point sees our heroes, who are moving forward in time, battling the bad guys, who are moving backwards in time, only to then flip things around and repeat the set-piece from the reverse perspective. Imagine if Tarkovsky had directed The French Connection and you'll have some idea of the arthouse action on display here. It's like nothing you've seen before, and you simply have to applaud its audacity.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - The Score ]

But here's the rub. As technically magnificent as Tenet is, it's all rather soulless. Throughout his career, Nolan has been accused of struggling to write three-dimensional characters, and with Tenet he may have given us the most one-dimensional bunch of characters of his filmography so far. Washington and Pattinson share a breezy chemistry (which some may even interpret as homoerotic), but their heroes exist largely as vessels to deliver crudely written expository dialogue, which is functional at best, in an attempt to try and keep us on top of its complex plot. It doesn't help that, as is often the case with Nolan's films, much of the dialogue is rendered indecipherable by an overbearing sound mix. It's as though the whole movie is a riff on that moment in North by North West when Leo G Carroll's explanation of the plot to Cary Grant is drowned out by a passing plane. Branagh's Stor is as one-note a Slavic villain as you'll find in any jingoistic American Cold War era action flick, while Debicki's Kat might be the most problematic of Nolan's women-in-peril to date, with the film too often relying on the regressive trope of the threat of violence being enacted against a woman.

tenet movie review

Tenet contains some of the most objectively impressive action set-pieces of modern mainstream cinema, but subjectively it's a bit of a bore. There's not much for us to latch onto in between those set-pieces, thanks to Nolan's frankly atrocious script. I get the sense that like Hitchcock, Nolan envisions his films in terms of the two or three set-pieces he can construct. But Hitchcock was always wise enough to hire top class screenwriters to fashion a movie around his technically audacious plans, to ensure his films had soul to match the spectacle. Tenet is crying out for the contribution of a writer that could take Nolan's intellectual concepts and make them relatable, and more importantly enjoyable, for the audience. If Tenet had characters as interesting and fun to hang around with as those that have graced the most recent Mission Impossible movies, it would be everything you could ask for from a summer blockbuster. As it is, it's a movie that's easy to admire intellectually, but difficult to engage with emotionally.

Tenet is on Prime Video UK now.