“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
It’s a simple request “Tenet” asks from viewers early in its 151-minute runtime, and if you can suspend disbelief, envelop yourself in whatever is happening, and handle feeling your brain melt right before your own eyes — it may just be a mission you can hopefully try to complete.
As the anticipation for Christopher Nolan’s first feature film since 2017 has grown in recent weeks, I’ve tried my absolute hardest to avoid reading, listening or examining anything that may have inclined my brain in any particular direction before walking into the theatre Thursday night. We all know what to expect from Nolan by now — stunning set pieces, unbelievable cinematography and even more complicated story constructions that would make a philosopher throw his hands up in frustration and walk away in disgust. This is the visionary who revealed the world of dreams through “Inception,” spearheaded the most realistic superhero franchise ever in the “Dark Knight” Trilogy and even transported us back to the beaches of Nazi-occupied France in “Dunkirk.” If anyone alive could build a globe-trotting, espionage thriller that bends the concepts of space, time and thermodynamics — it’s him. That’s what makes the film so incredibly satisfying, yet endlessly frustrating all at the same time.
“Tenet” stars John David Washington (HBO’s “Ballers,” “Black KKKlansman”) as a figure known only as “The Protagonist” to audiences, a CIA agent who begins the film in the middle of a failed SWAT operation upon a Russian opera house and soon discovers that the mission he believed he was accepting couldn’t be any further from the truth. When he awakens, he finds himself in the hands of the eponymous organization, and realizes he needs to track down the clues behind a piece of technology that could cause global annihilation.
He works with a fellow Bond-like character named Neal, played by Robert Pattinson, to unravel the full extent of the mission. They quickly come into the crosshairs of Russian oligarch and arms dealer Andrei Sator, played by Kenneth Branagh, who will stop at nothing to see his own plans for the world come to fruition.
To try and explain what exactly (I think) happens in this movie would be foolish – Nolan refuses to let audiences fully enter the world he’s created, and he seemingly strives to make us question our collective intelligence whenever he releases his latest film.
Shots cut, scenes transition and characters change so rapidly, one moment standing in Mumbai streets, the next a picturesque view of the Vietnamese coastline that the viewer has virtually no time to make sense of what’s happening and should just try to hang on for as long as possible instead of solving what the mystery entails. This confusion is only doubled through Nolan’s frustrating inability to comprehend how sound mixing is supposed to work, amplifying background noise during key moments of exposition and obscuring the dialogue between characters so greatly that it makes what semblance of a plot exists even more perplexing.
Pattinson, who brought another charming, diverse character to the extensive list he’s built since the fateful “Twilight” films, paired well both Washington and Elizabeth Debicki (“Widows”), who played Andrei’s estranged wife Kat.
Without the work of these talented actors, the movie would be borderline unwatchable beyond the visual spectacle I was treated to.
But boy, what a visual spectacle it was.
Numerous action sequences, perfectly executed with reliance upon the unnamed technological McGuffin that drives the film’s plot, will leave you breathless from the start and refuse to let go until the final moments arrive. One scene in particular, wherein Neal, The Protagonist and a character named Mahir (played by Himesh Patel who starred in “Yesterday”) develop a scheme to crash a jet into a runway terminal to steal valuable cargo from airport security, was unlike anything I’ve seen put to the big screen in years. It simply blew away the CGI-laden additions to the Marvel franchise and making the DCEU’s set pieces quiver in fear at the power of Nolan’s immense set design skills.
Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s keen eye provides you with more than the price of admission if you can ignore the bonkers storyline, while composer Ludwig Göransson’s (“Black Panther”) haunting score pair perfectly with a blend of synthetic tones and pounding bass that will send chills down audience’s spine during the quieter and (much) louder parts of the film. I’m no music-head by any means, but I know a memorable score when I hear it. This will be something you’ll consider throwing on as you work out in the morning, tackle the rigorous demands of online classes and potentially contemplate life’s meaning at 3 a.m. — as one does.
As I sat down to write this, I knew — like my much smaller brain — that I wouldn’t be able to put “Tenet” to justice with words. It’s like a car crash on the side of the highway that you can’t explain, but also can’t quite look away from — requiring you to live in the moment and see it unfold before it can be analyzed many times over to figure out what exactly is happening. If you’re comfortable venturing out beyond the confines of your home for the first time in months to see this movie, stay for the sizzle and ignore the steak altogether. You’ll find a beautiful disaster that should be seen on the biggest screen possible — with a mask of course.