Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time. (from IMDb)
It's been three years since we've seen a feature film from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan. His last outing was Dunkirk, a nontraditional approach to the war drama. He proved to be just as capable of making a non-linear approach work in the war genre as any of his other kind of mind-bending thrillers. Now, with Tenet, which is also written and directed by Nolan himself, he takes his mind-bending storytelling narrative to a whole nother level. If you took his films Memento and Inception, with a dash of Dunkirk, and threw them into a blender, you might get the vibe of Tenet. It's a twisty, turning, rewinding sci-fi film that takes a much different spin on the spy genre.
From the start, Tenet is unexpected. It opens with the concert hall invasion that was largely previewed late last year as an exclusive IMAX sneak peek (which made for an uncomfortable viewing with our 9-year-old son who had just come along to see the new Star Wars film). It quickly takes a bleak turn with a brutal interrogation sequence that makes great use of foreground obstruction and subtle hints to inform the audience what is happening without actually showing it in gruesome detail. Out of the gate, Tenet is quite violent, but without being graphic. But then Nolan pumps the brakes as he continues to the lay down track, so to speak, to guide the audience through the story. After seeing the film, I read that Nolan wanted to emulate the James Bond world, and now knowing that, I can see those touches throughout Tenet. John David Washington plays a character only known as The Protagonist -- never mentioned by name -- and he carries himself a little like Daniel Craig's Bond. He's driven toward justice, loyal, quiet, reserved, and drawn to the damsel in distress. Still, if this were Bond, it's Nolan's version of Bond, and the kind that will leave you thinking about it and replaying it in your mind over and over long after the credits have rolled.
We saw the film on IMAX, which is typically the ideal viewing experience since it was largely shot on IMAX cameras, especially made for this format. However, the audio was loud and booming, which is awesome in this format, yes, but it made the dialog almost entirely indiscernible for large--and crucial--chunks of the film. We definitely were able to make out enough to be able to follow the film, but the high volumes, coupled with Ludwig Göransson's bombastic score, made some scenes very difficult to understand. For example, the dialog in a scene where the characters go speed sailing (for lack of the actual technical term) while wearing microphones on their helmets so they can communicate with one and other over the wail of the winds was almost completely drowned out by the ambient noises. The film's finale largely involves characters running and shouting while wearing helmets that also obscure their faces, so the audience is a bit out of luck when it comes to trying to follow who is who and what they're yelling to each other at any given moment. All of this hindered my overall experience of a film I could see myself otherwise loving, but instead left feeling somewhat cheated out of experiencing it properly due to the sound simply being much too loud and distorted. On that note, Ludwig Göransson's score aids the chaotic nature of the film appropriately, but sometimes gets in the way a bit. The loud, thunderous score (track "747," for example) is awesome and perfectly adds to a given scene, while the music that plays when the film's villain Sator (and the soundtrack's track of the same name) is melodramatic and disturbing all at the same time (Reportedly, Nolan recorded his own breathing that Ludwig then melded into the music, with unsettling results). Musically, it's a mixture of Hans Zimmer's Inception, The Dark Knight and Dunkirk scores (with a Tron Legacy vibe on "Foils"), with an emphasis on Zimmer's more dissonant approach on those soundtracks.
For the first act or so, Tenet did seem to meander a bit. For a movie that touted messing with how time is perceived, it seemed to have very little to do with that. For a 2-and-a-half-hour-long film, the beginning feels a bit choppy and abbreviated. But Nolan takes his time setting up the story, world-building for The Protagonist, helping you feel for Elizabeth Debicki's victimized Kat, and showing us just how truly evil Kenneth Branagh's Sator really is. Washington also seemed a bit too dry and wooden for much of the first half or so of the film, but he seems to come alive as the world of Tenet is revealed. By the time Nolan shows the audience his cards, it's tough not to be fully on board and sucked into the world he's built for his characters. We get to see some scenes from multiple perspectives in an exciting way, and it makes Tenet a kind of gift-that-keeps-on-giving. It's a layered film which packs some emotional punches for good measure, making it one that delivers on multiple levels--something very few films seem to do these days. It's a summer blockbuster with depth. I'm itching to see how multiple viewings would play out for it.
The content is very intense for much of the film, but it's seldom graphic. As I mentioned earlier, the beginning involves a harrowing attack on a full-audience concert hall, with people being threatened at gunpoint, hit, and then gassed (I'm not sure if it's lethal, but we see hundreds of people passing out). The following scene shows a man tied up, clearly under duress, with a bloody pair of pliers lying on a nearby table. As the interrogator continues to work on the victim, their back and a passing train in the foreground masks the brutality of the torture scene. A following scene reveals that the victim's teeth were being pulled out. Later on in the movie, we see quite a bit of violence at the hands of the main villain, Sator. He beats a man with a gold brick, and we see blood splattered on it. Several scenes later, he punches and kicks a woman and then threatens to stomp on her head before stopping and leaving (this is also the scene where a very loud and emphasized "F" word is shouted). Even later, we see a bloody bullet hole in a glass window which we realize will be shot into someone through inversion, and later see a different character dripping a little blood on the ground. Lastly, we see a nasty scar / healing wound on a person's side, and a person is shot in the chest without a shirt on and we see a small bloody bullet hole on their skin (They're then pushed off the side of a boat and the body hits its head on a railing, making a cracking sound, before it hits the water -- it's pretty rough). The film is infrequently graphic, but Nolan has been able to get the severity of his point across well without necessarily showing graphic detail. For profanity, there is the aforementioned "F" word, about 4 uses of the "S" word, 4 of "h*ll," 1 "J-sus Chr-st," 2 "J-sus," 1 "g-dd-mn," and a couple other words. But for such a long movie, language is mercifully infrequent. As for sexual content, there isn't any, although some mild references are made. Sator asks The Protagonist if he's had sex with his wife yet, to which he replies somewhat sarcastically, "No... not yet." Sator then threatens him by suggesting he may have his men take him out back, cut his "balls" off and shove them down his throat.
Although my first viewing experience for Tenet wasn't the strongest it could have been, I still enjoyed the film and was wowed, yet again, by the work of Christopher Nolan. The content is heavy and appropriately PG-13, so parents beware, but for those who find the usual R-rated fare a bit too much for them (like this reviewer), Tenet is a cut above what one would expect from a PG-13 summer blockbuster and another great Nolan puzzler to enjoy. After my first viewing, I think I'll sit at a 4 out of 5, but I can imagine that repeat viewings will only improve my enjoyment of the film going forward.- John DiBiase (reviewed: 9/7/20)
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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