Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

The Daily — Aug 24, 2020
John David Washington in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020)

Starting Wednesday, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet will finally begin rolling out into theaters around the world before arriving in the U.S. on September 3. Early reviews are in, and nearly all of them quote a single line that seems to be pointedly delivered as the key to enjoying this two-and-a-half-hour puzzler. As Barbara (Clémence Poésy), a physicist in a white lab coat, lays down a whole new set of scientific laws, she tells the unnamed C.I.A. agent played by John David Washington—in the credits, he’s simply referred to as the Protagonist—“Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”

The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, who pans Tenet, finds “something grating about a film which insists on detailing its pseudo-science while also conceding you probably won’t have followed a thing.” But the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin gives Tenet five out of five stars: “Feeling your heart and brain race to keep up is a significant part of the fun here.”

At stake is nothing less than the very fabric of reality. A Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), has got his hands on a bit of technology from the future that reverses time, and he intends to use it in the worst possible way. To get to Sator, our Protagonist will have to go through his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), with the help of his dashing handler, Neil (Robert Pattinson). “As it turns out,” writes Adam Woodward for Little White Lies,Tenet is remarkably easy to follow. No, really. Nolan may construct a lofty premise around a galaxy-brain-level theorem while throwing around complex-sounding ideas like entropy, inversion algorithms, and ‘temporal pincers’ (band name!), but the film’s basic chronology and structure are fairly straightforward. The fun with Tenet lies not in trying to decipher the whats or the whys but in simply admiring the how.”

Most reviewers agree that Tenet’s closest cousin in Nolan’s filmography is the 2010 time and space-bender, Inception, “which used the essential language of the heist film as an organizing structure for Nolan’s peculiar fixations of chronology and consciousness,” as Guy Lodge writes in Variety.Tenet tricks out the spy thriller with expanded science-fiction parameters to return to those pet themes.” The story itself is “more convoluted than it is complex, wider than it is deep, and there’s more linearity to its form than you might guess, though it offers some elegantly executed structural figure-eights along the way.” The BBC’s Nicholas Barber suggests that Tenet is “a Bond movie which squeezes Back to the Future 2 and Edge of Tomorrow into its last half-hour.”

Think of Inception, and its folding cities or the hand-to-hand struggle in a rotating hallway may be what come to mind first. Tenet’s signature scenes will most likely be the ones in which individual characters or entire armies face off while traveling in opposite chronological directions. The opening sequence, though, with a packed opera house under terrorist attack, moves straight ahead, and it “ends with interior and exterior shots of an explosion, which the editor Jennifer Lame transforms with as perfect an action cut as ever there was,” writes Jessica Kiang in the New York Times. “In that microsecond, we’re reminded of something the last few months have conspired to make us forget: cinematic scale. Tenet operates on a physiological level, in the stomach-pit rumbles of Ludwig Goransson’s score, and the dilated-pupil responses to Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography.”


Kiang suggests that “the lie of Nolan’s career has been that he makes the traditionally teenage-boy-aimed blockbuster smarter and more adult, when what he really does is ennoble the teenage boy fixations many of us adults still cherish, creating vast, sizzling conceptual landscapes in which all anyone really does is crack safes and blow stuff up.” More first impressions of Tenet come from Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter, Hanna Flint at the Film Stage, Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan, Mike McCahill at IndieWire, and Jonathan Romney in the Los Angeles Times.

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