Christopher Nolan's Tenet is a bewildering assault on the senses – but it's a must-see

I CAN'T remember a film to ever carry with it such responsibility. 

Christopher Nolan’s tenth outing has unwittingly set itself up as the movie which will decide if cinema will recover from Covid.

An unashamed auteur, Nolan refused to allow it to follow the path of, ahem, Trolls: World Tour and head straight to on-demand – arguing that the spectacle could and should only be experienced in it’s intended setting.

So, after multiple delays waiting for Trump to start actually behaving like there was a global pandemic, it finally hits our screens (some months before the USA). 

There’s no denying the importance of Tenet on many layers.

Creatively, Nolan always presents “events” rather than films – made under such secrecy and with such complexity, critics and audience salivate at every crumb he throws us (and good grief have we been starved of a good old blockbuster).

But on a cultural level, it has hoisted itself onto it’s own perilous petard – you enjoy cinema? You want to go to the movies and try to live some semblance of a pre-covid life? You want to support the arts (you can sit in a cinema but not the theatre – for some reason)? Well you’d better bloody like this movie.

Does it work? Well… Yes and no.  As the anointed ‘Saviour of Modern Cinema™’ this is exactly what we needed – a giant, bombastic, gorgeous film to remind us of everything cinema can offer us.

It’s a spectacle that deserves to be seen in the best place possible (if you have an IMAX near you, book it). But it’s on a basic creative level that the film starts to fall apart.

Admittedly, this could be Nolan’s masterstroke – make Tenet so damned confusing and difficult to follow, you have no choice but to watch it more than once – but I doubt even he would take that risk.

Naturally, all Nolan’s films carry the strictest “no spoilers” warning, but honestly, that’s the problem… I wouldn’t even know where to start. How can I spoil a plot I barely kept up with? 

In a nutshell, this is the Christoper Nolan doing a Bond film with elements from Inception and Memento thrown in for good measure.

In his own words: “Tenet is an espionage thriller with a Protagonist at it’s heart, who is inducted into a more-secret-than-secret organization known as Tenet”.

John David Washington is the unnamed protagonist, saved from a bungled CIA operation and pitted against Kenneth Branagh’s Russian oligarch Andrei Sator – a man who built his empire after learning how to communicate with the future.

With only a single word to go on (Tenet FYI), he must join forces with the mysterious Neil (Robert Pattinson) and infiltrate the Russian’s inner circle before his actions trigger WWIII.

The route chosen is through Kat, his estranged wife played by Elizabeth Debicki. That’s pretty much all you’re going to get out of me regarding the storyline.

Not just because I'm vehemently anti-spoiler, but because it only really started to make sense after my second viewing and even now I'm still not 100 per cent certain what the hell I was watching.

The science beyond Nolan’s theory – and the fundamental crux of the whole film is explained at several points – first by Clémence Poésy waving a hand over a bullet espousing something about ‘reverse radiation’ and later a few times by Branagh – but none entirely successfully. I spent more time thinking ‘WHY?’ rather than ‘WOW!’. 

At one point, I thought he’d pulled it off – I thought we were witnessing one of biggest switcheroos in cinematic history – but we have all the complexity of Inception without any of Interstellar’s heart.

Clémence Poésy’s character knows what’s what though – at one point pleading “don’t try and understand – just feel it” – and I really tried.

I’ll be damned if I'm ending on a downer though – because there are far more reasons to see Tenet than not.

The opening 15 minutes are breathlessly exciting, the set-pieces are ambitious and gargantuan (only Nolan could deliver the jumbo jet sequence with such aplomb), the casting (with the exception of Branagh) is pitch perfect (in particular Robert Pattinson, who gives a glimpse at the kind of Batman we can expect in a couple of years time) and it contains the best fight scene with a cheese grater you’ll see for some time.

It’s a tense, bewildering assault on the senses. It was never going to live up to all the expectations – but despite the frayed plot and bad script, this is still a film you need to see.

It improves dramatically on second viewing – and I'm already planning my third. Thanks Chris.

Viva Le Cinema!

TENET (12A) 150mins

★★★☆☆

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