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Non-Review Review: TENET

NOTE: I live in Ireland. Our cinemas are open. Evidence suggests that it is (relatively) safe for people to attend the cinema if they take the necessary precautions. However, I am aware that it is not safe in every country to do so, and I also understand that many readers may not feel safe attending their local cinema even in areas where the evidence suggests it is safe. As this seems to be a hot-button issue with all theatrical releases during the pandemic – but with TENET in particular – it feels important to stress this outside the body of the review itself.

This should go without saying, but given the nature of the current pandemic it is worth repeating: No movie is worth risking your life for. If you feel – or if information from sources you trust suggest – that it is unsafe to go to the cinema, then please do not go. I loved this film. I will see it in cinemas again at least twice within the next week, because it is safe for me to do so. This review should not be taken as an endorsement that the reader should feel they have to (or are expected to) risk their lives to see this film. With that in mind, here is the review.

“Time isn’t the problem,” insists Neil early in TENET. Like a lot of things that the shady operator says over the course of the film, this is not exactly true.

There is a lot riding on TENET. Almost none of this was intended when the film was conceived and produced. As the first major theatrical release since the coronavirus pandemic, TENET effectively shoulders the burden of saving cinema – particularly with a death of major releases between now and Wonder Woman 1984 and with the planned release of Mulan on Disney+. It’s a lot of weight for a film like TENET to carry. Time will tell whether it can succeed or not, but it makes a valiant effort.

Shattering the release window.

TENET rises to this challenge in a couple of ways. Most obviously, TENET is quite simply a triumph of blockbuster filmmaking. Director Christopher Nolan has boasted about how much of the film was completed using in-camera effects and how carefully choreographed it all was. TENET is a movie that showcases the power of spectacle, whether in its delightfully complicated action sequences or even in Hoyte Van Hoytema’s breathtaking establishing shots. TENET is a movie that demands as big a screen as possible, reminding audiences of the scale of such filmmaking.

However, there’s more to it than that. TENET is a film that feels curiously attuned to this cultural moment. It is a film that deals with many of Nolan’s pet themes and obsessions, but in a way that feels very much in step with the modern moment. It’s hard to summarise TENET without spoiling the movie, without revealing too much in terms of plot mechanics or character motivations, but TENET is a film about the breakdown of time itself. It is a film about the collapse of chaos and effect, and a world in which the future and the past are a war over the present.

A career highlight?

It’s an ambitious film. Nolan’s movies are frequently driven by high-concepts and abstract ideas, and the director is remarkable in his ability to build crowd-pleasing blockbusters around concepts like time dilation in Inception and the theory of relativity in Interstellar. If anything, TENET seems to push that idea to breaking time. As Neil repeatedly points out over the course of the film, he has a degree in quantum physics and he struggles to make sense of the film’s internal logic. Perhaps the film’s protagonist (known simply as the Protagonist) sums it up best, “Woah.”

TENET is an interesting film from Nolan in a number of ways. The villainous Russian oligarch Andrei Sator is probably the director’s scuzziest character since Insomnia or Memento. The film itself is perhaps Nolan’s most emotionally repressed since The Prestige. These sensibilities are blended with his more modern high-concept blockbuster aesthetic, and flavoured with a surprising amount of self-awareness. The result is a heady cocktail that is occasionally overwhelming, but never unsatisfying.

Well, masks are recommended at cinema screenings.

Note: Warner Brothers have specifically requested that reviews avoid spoilers. As a result, this review will talk rather generally about TENET. However, if you want to see it completely unspoiled, it is perhaps best to just take our word for it: it is good. It is probably even the best film we’ve seen this year. That is a very short review.

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