It takes a lot for a director to become a brand unto themselves.
Having made some of the biggest blockbusters of the last two decades, writer/director Christopher Nolan continues to create ambitious worlds that also look to maintain depth to their stories. With the release of his latest epic adventure Tenet, Nolan offers all of the originality and spectacle that fans of his are looking for in their films.
As the world [slowly] moves back to the multiplex after the global pandemic, the scope of Tenet alone earns the right to be the first major blockbuster to be seen in cinemas. Though the cast does a solid job embracing the script (especially villain Kenneth Branaugh, who positively snarls onscreen), what audiences will appreciate most are the film’s excellently orchestrated set pieces. Rumoured to have used less than 300 digital effects—most blockbusters today usually use thousands per film—Tenet is a visual treat that dazzles the eye. Through his use of inverted time, Nolan creates something so unique that it will demand repeat viewings. Though the narrative is incredibly high concept, it also moves and operates well within the rules for the world that it creates (which is vital for any film about time travel). While admittedly the dialogue can suffer at times due to muffled sound and an overpowering soundtrack (think Bane from Dark Knight Rises), the film always demands your attention and is an entertaining ride from start to finish (and back to start again).
Tenet follows an unnamed secret agent (John David Washington) who is literally referred to as ‘the Protagonist’. After thwarting a terrorist bombing, The Protagonist is enlisted by the Tenet organization, a covert government group committed to stopping World War III. During his training, he learns that fragments from the future have been discovered by terrorists in the present, allowing them to create inverted time loops which threaten to unravel the fabric of all reality. Teaming up with his new partner, Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist sets off on a mission to retrieve the fragments in order to save the both the present world and time itself.
Though Tenet is drawing comparisons to Nolan’s other mind-bending original, Inception, in truth the film is a natural progression for him over the course of his career. From Memento to Interstellar, Nolan has always been interested in the way that we perceive time and its impact on how we understand the world. (In fact, through its fractured narrative and varying portrayals of time, even his historical WWI epic Dunkirk played with this notion as well.) In Tenet though, Nolan really dives into the concept of time looping and its effect on the fate of mankind. Though he tells his story in a linear manner, there is enough interplay backwards and forwards to bend minds (and, yes, cause some confusion at times).
Like Nolan’s boldest projects, Tenet is also rooted deeply in philosophy. Echoing projects like Interstellar and Batman Begins, he uses this film as an opportunity to explore man’s role in the universe. Initially locked in his own perceptions of reality, Tenet’s Protagonist is a man who realizes that he needs to change the way he understands the world in order to have an impact upon it. His experience with the Tenet Organization not only loosens the underpinnings of his knowledge of reality but forces him to re-examine what can ultimately be changed, even when it has ‘already happened’. [Warning: Minor Spoilers ahead] In this regard, it’s interesting that the film attempts to bring the element of faith as The Protagonist moves forward within his timeline. Despite the fact that what ‘is’ remains ultimately unchangeable, there’s a certain element of hope in the future that Nolan clings to in this film. However, instead of having confidence in some greater power, The Protagonist is challenged to put his faith in the physical realm. (“Have faith in the natural order,” Pattinson’s Neil reminds.) [Minor Spoilers End]
Interestingly, Nolan appears to have a sense of hope in the linear nature of time. Whereas Memento spoke of clinging to the past, Tenet leans into the idea that new perspectives help provide light in the future. Though the fate of the world may be predetermined, Nolan emphasizes the importance of the individual and their actions in what is to be. (In this way, while never quoted directly, the film almost feels like an homage to Henley’s famed poem Invictus which says, “It matters not how straight the gate… I am the captain of my fate. I am the master of my soul.”) As a result, Tenet argues that, while unchangeable, the role of The Protagonist continues to matter due to the fact that it remains unknown to them.
In the end, Tenet serves as a suitable next chapter in Nolan’s ever-growing catalogue of complex puzzles that both satisfy the eyes and challenge the mind. Through his use of linear time looping, the famed writer/director wants desperately to explore not just the nature of the universe but man’s place and responsibilities within it. More importantly though, even if one has no interest in exploring the complex philosophy that holds the film together, Tenet’s stunning visuals and action-heavy story should also thoroughly entertain audiences as well.
Especially when it’s seen in a theatre.
Tenet is in Canadian theatres now and premieres in US markets on September 4th, 2020.