Review: Tenet

Nolan's chaotic play with time and space

Christopher Nolan's latest movie Tenet is a delightful, at times absurd, mix of James Bond, sci-fi and doomsday prophecy.

Published 27 August 2020 - 12:30 pm
Tor Aavatsmark

The rescue of the cinemas?

After the Chinese came to the conclusion that it was a silly idea to stuff pangolins, infected with virus-infested bat shit, and cinemas around the world went into lockdown mode, it has been a rather meager film offer for filmmakers.

Closed cinemas, on the other hand, have given a golden age for streaming services with record influx to Netflix and the newcomer Disney + (which will be launched in the Nordics on 15 September), while the film studios have postponed the premiere of their major films, and ultimately referred them to streaming services. The premiere of Tenet has been postponed several times, but from 28 August you can watch it at a cinema near you (if it is then open).

Several film studios are now almost at “war” with the cinema chains and are pushing to shrink the exclusive window the cinemas have for showing a film, before it can be launched in other channels (such as streaming services, Blu-ray and VoD).

A cinema market plagued by distance rules, the audience’s fear of meeting in large gatherings (when we saw Tenet was only about 20% of the seats sold) and drought on big movies, many cinemas now put their trust in Tenet to save the beginning of the cinema autumn.

The film definitely has the qualities needed to attract a large audience, the big question is whether most people have become so well accustomed to their own easy chair, home comfort and more than usable action movies from Netflix, that they will flock back in large numbers to the country’s cinemas. We have our doubts…


The uncompromising director

We might as well reveal it right away, Christopher Nolan is one of our top director favorites.

The uncompromising, playful Briton is behind classics such as the Batman trilogy, Inception, Interstellar and the unique war film Dunkirk. His films always look, and sound, like “a million dollars.”

Certainly not by the film worlds most productive directors, but then Nolan also puts all his soul and creativity into his uncompromising works of art. And real art, it takes time to create; something he does without taking into account either the audience’s expectations or the critics’ sharp pens.

Nolan himself is behind the script in his films, and the man is not afraid to challenge his audience, with demanding, complicated stories and unexpected / inexplicable plot twists. In that sense, Tenet is no exception.

The plan to save the world is being laid in the back streets of Oslo. Tenet (Photo: SF / Warner)

Nolan’s glamorous play with time and space

Now, a straight-forward story is definitely not exactly Nolan’s trademark, something those of you who have seen Interstellar can sign. In Tenet, he wraps his “brand” in a mix of modern James Bond, experimental sci-fi and the darkest doomsday prophecies, where it is all spiced with “inverted” time.

John Davis Washington (BlacKkKlansman) is the cool, laid-back protagonist the whole story is centered around. He simply goes by the name “The Protagonist”. Together with the agent (?) Neil (Robert Pattinson, whom we last saw in The Lighthouse), they set out on a mission to, nothing less, save the world from melting into a metaphysical Armageddon.

Their common nemesis is the Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) with his trophy wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Sator is rich beyond comprehension, a globetrotter of rank where he enjoys his rest days in the giant yacht along the Amalfi Coast or off Vietnam. He keeps his wife in a tightrope, with threats and psychological terror, she is kept within his “sphere of interest” – because, if he can not get her, then no one else should.

Tenet (Photo: SF/Warner)

The plot is tightened as time shopping / inversion comes in as a key element. Without revealing too much of the plot, we can say that it is about Sator’s access to time machines that twist time and space into several dimensions – a concept that gives Nolan unprecedented opportunities to twist, and confuse, with history; possibly a little too much of a good thing.

Where we in ingenious Inception were exposed to dream sequences in several dimensions, and Nolan in Interstaller took it all out, time shifts and parallel dimensions become central in Tenet. Here the cars drive backwards, bullets are “shot” into the barrel and the people, with the supply of artificial oxygen, talk backwards while heat turns to ice.

In the familiar Nolan style, he consciously does not bother to explain or prove the concept – he leaves that to the viewers. If you want to get something out of the film, other than spectacular explosions and beautifully choreographed scenes, it presupposes that you buy the time concept.

Sensory orgy with emotional deficiencies

From the first scene, as the National Opera of Ukraine explodes, it goes non-stop at a breathtaking pace of action. Via the opera in Oslo to a so-called free port art warehouse, our friends move to Estonia, Italy, Vietnam and the back streets of Mumbai in the purest James Bond style.

But, unlike the relatively easily digestible Bond, Nolan demands a lot from his audience.

Maybe you recognize the opera in Oslo? Tenet (Photo: SF / Warner)

As always, there is absolutely nothing to complain about in the exceptional action scenes of a Nolan movie. From the scene where a (real!) Jumbo jet is blown up at Oslo Airport, to the fierce car chase through the streets of Tallinn, hard physical fights in two dimensions, plutonium hunting in secret Soviet cities, and the purest guerrilla war in lunar landscapes and caves, he takes our breath away. Obviously helped by a fantastic photo, signed Hoyte Van Hoytema.

We are served a regular visual party bonanza, where the use of digital special effects is toned down to what is absolutely necessary, the whole thing is accompanied by a particularly bombastic sound track orgy from the composer Ludwig Göransson.

There is no room to fall asleep during the screening of the film, your brain is constantly bombarded with complicated theories and time jumps, while the visual screams at you, and your ears and body are hammered on by big timpani!

But, in the midst of this “attack” on all the senses, it seems that this time Nolan has almost forgotten the emotional plane.

Our protagonist immediately develops strong feelings for Kat, without the story supporting it. We do not understand why he is almost ready to put the whole operation in danger to save her. Nor do we get anything special under the skin of any of the main roles. They remain one-dimensional and almost platonic.

Tenet (Photo: SF/Warner)

Sure, Branagh’s character is a pure cliché of a Russian oligarch, but the great Shakespeare interpreter comes far better from this Russian villain role than he did in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. His wife, Elizabeth Debicki (who we will soon see as Diana) is the films’ onlyborn human alibi. Kat is the only one we get close to, and feels her desperation and remorse in what she is forced to stay in the relationship with the sadist.

Washington is cool, though not as cool as in BlacKkKlansman, and easily slips into the role of world-famous agent – but we never get hold of him as a person, and / or grasp his motives. Which, lack of human dimension, is a relatively major weakness in Nolan’s epic action operetta.

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Elizabeth Debicki. Tenet (Photo: SF/Warner)

Uncompromising concept film

There seems to be a deeper meaning behind it all, with hints of criticism of today’s over-consumption and hostile society, where the future is out to punish the present, but that message drowns a little in all the noise and chaos.

Nolan’s works of art are not always of the easily digestible type, but at the same time something you are not indifferent to. His concept films can at times become somewhat overly indigestible and well “artistic”.

A somewhat unnecessarily chaotic and confusing plot pulls down, here there are probably more who will go relatively questioningly out of the cinema darkness, and feel that the brain has been mentally raped, but we still end up handing out 5 weak stars to Nolan’s latest «installation ».

Recommend seeing it several times, if you accept all of Christopher Nolan’s disputes and imaginative moves, we can promise you a real joyride!

Tenet (Photo: SF/Warner)


  • Release: August 28, 2020
  • Directed by: Christopher Nolan
  • With: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson,
  • Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine
  • Genre: Action
  • Country: USA
  • Year: 2020
  • Time: 2:30 p.m.
  • Rating: 5
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