Movie-viewing lesson number one: Never get cocky going into a film directed by Christopher Nolan. That’s the exact mistake I made with “Tenet,” which, after three delays thanks to COVID-19, has finally been released in theaters.
I bragged to my friends about how well I followed the dream within a dream within a dream mission of “Inception.” I patted myself on the back when I comprehended the black hole science in “Interstellar” in spite of the blaring IMAX speakers.
But I naively let down my guard with Nolan’s latest project. I zoned out for one sentence of dialogue about halfway through, and before I knew it, I was lost.
Indeed, “Tenet” is possibly Nolan’s most complicated and, unfortunately, most emotionally removed film to date. But if you don’t let the intricacies frustrate you, you’ll be sucked in by the film’s thrilling action, cataclysmic stakes and cinematic flair.
Our protagonist is called, well, the Protagonist (John David Washington). He’s a CIA agent who’s been recruited by the titular organization to stop World War III. And the only way to do that is, apparently, time travel.
Anyone can go to the past by reversing their movements and literally traveling backwards. The process will help the Protagonist and his team reach time-bending oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and stop him from causing world destruction…I think.
Comprehending “Tenet” is particularly challenging because, unlike “Inception” and “Interstellar,” it doesn’t give us a human core to hold onto. The Protagonist is not a particularly interesting character, and most of the dramatic heavy lifting is given to Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Her struggle to break free from her prison of a marriage is engaging but underexplored.
Fortunately, Washington is more than up to the challenge of making the protagonist engaging. He’s got the style, quips and emotional range we all want in an action hero, and I’d love to see him explore the genre more in the future.
In addition Nolan’s directing eye is more on-point than ever. With little of the CGI that held him back with “Inception,” he’s able to paint each frame into a darkly intense picture. So many modern blockbusters forget the camera’s power in telling a story, and it’s refreshing to come across a popcorn flick that’s so pleasing to look at.
The action scenes also take full advantage of the aforementioned inverted movements. No two soldiers, cars or bullets move in the same direction, allowing for some inventive set pieces.
“Tenet” is not for everyone, and some viewers may have less patience with its narrative flaws than I did. Nevertheless, you’ll likely find something to enjoy in this smarter-than-average thriller.
Just be prepared for repeated viewings. And don’t get cocky.
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