Tenet is a film that’s weird to review because, before seeing it, I didn’t quite get what was going on, and then after seeing it, I’m still trying to process it; and I think a further viewing would certainly help clarify things.
John David Washington plays an unnamed CIA agent who’s simply referred to as ‘The Protagonist’, and is told that in order to progress his mission after retrieving a rather odd object in the opening scene, saying the word ‘Tenet’ will open the right doors, but also some of the wrong ones… and as we see that you can simply drop the word into a conversation, what’s to stop someone else finding out the word and using it in other situations? However, that’s not addressed, and given it’s a Christopher Nolan script, the dialogue can be a bit soap-opera-like and doesn’t always have to explain every last thing.
The theme of this film is that some things can travel backwards, while the rest of the world travels forwards – and that it’s not that things ARE happening backwards… they’re actually happening forwards, but to the rest of the world, it just LOOKS like it’s happening backwards. Got it? Good.
This is shown early on as our lead is shown piece of material which has had bullets fired into it, along with some of those bullets, and that thanks to their entropy being “inverted”, he can put his hand over them, and watch them jump into his hand as if you’ve just dropped them onto the table yourself, and then someone’s reversed the footage (which is how those scenes were made, but go with it, anyway.
How is all this a thing? Down to inverse radiation caused by nuclear fission, and it’s come from the future as remnants from a future war… yep, exactly. Someone’s been on the happy sauce. In fact, as he’s told by scientist Barbara (Clémence Poésy), “Don’t try to understand it”… good advice.
Unexplained fires are a matter for the courts!
Canyonero! Canyonero! #
Thrown into the mix is a fake drawing for which the real one is very expensive, Kenneth Branagh with a cod-Russian accent as arms dealer Andrei Sator, who has a penchant for 241 Weapons-Grade Plutonium; Robert Pattinson as the lead’s handler, Neil – with Mr Pattinson having apparently put the production of The Batman into a spin as he’s the one on set who’s contracted COVID19, although it does seem just a little too convenient that it’s him and not one of the many other people on-set; Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) as Sator’s very put-upon ex-wife Kat; while Nolan regular Michael Caine also pops up as a man called Sir Michael Crosby, and it’s just one scene, so when the character who meets him is about to leave, it was quite amusing to hear him say, “Goodbye, Sir Michael”, as if Caine has a knighthood… although I actually thought he did 🙂
At the 90-minute mark, we then get a trip into the backwards world for ourselves, but all too often, a fair smattering of the dialogue is quite muffled or drowned out, hence I’ll be glad to see it again on Blu-ray when that eventually comes out, but I would’ve liked to have heard it in the cinema, too.
Like with all of Christopher Nolan’s films since 2008’s The Dark Knight, since Warner Bros bought up all of the remaining 70mm IMAX stock for which he appears to have exclusive access, he has shot a large proportion of each film in that format. The first I saw on the big screen was 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, but I was big-time impressed with 2014’s Interstellar as it made the sci-fi drama one hell of an outing. 2017’s Dunkirk had around 70% of the film shot with such film stock, and brought so much of the movie into incredible vivid detail.
And now, with Tenet, the majority of this film is also made that way. But what’s the big deal about it? Well, if you watch this in a regular cinema, the film will be in a traditional 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, but if you can get to one of the four cinemas in the UK that can show 70mm IMAX film – like the Vue Printworks cinema I attended – you’ll see the picture open vertically to a 1.43:1 aspect ratio which is literally floor-to-ceiling and is breathtaking, leaving memories on the eyeballs to saviour.
There’s so much more to enjoy onscreen, and while there’s not yet an example clip of this film online, I’ll link a Dark Knight Rises clip below, so you can see what the difference is effectively like between a 2.39:1 widescreen ratio, a digital IMAX ratio (well, that is 1.90:1, while they’ve used a slightly taller Blu-ray clip which is 1.78:1) and 70mm IMAX of 1.43:1. The side-by-side clip isn’t as big as you’d see on a cinema screen, obviously, but if you imagine the 70mm IMAX clip as being floor-to-ceiling, you’ll get the idea.
In addition, after this film was put back from mid-July a few times, including being ‘postponed indefinitely’, I half-expected it to be delayed again. I am glad it’s finally out, and it’s clear that Christopher Nolan wanted to be seen as ‘the saviour of summer’ by insisting this be the first major release post-lockdown, because most major productions which were due out in 2020 – such as Fast and Furious 9 and A Quiet Place Part II have been put back around a year until 2021, by which time they hope to be able to play to a full house, rather than cinemas which are currently a third to half-full.
Overall, Tenet is a bit too clever for its own good – as well as borrowing elements from at least one time-bending film at one point, which I will only name in a spoiler section below because if you’ve seen that film as well, you may get what I’m driving at, so if you’re going to see this and you know your films, best wait until afterwards. Either way, this is an absolute visual feast – and if you’re anywhere near a 70mm IMAX showing, do so.
And finally, the film teases a potential sequel… or is it a prequel? My head hurts…
Tenet is not yet available to pre-order on Blu-ray or DVD, but you can buy The Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan’s Quantum Cold War (hardback book) and the original soundtrack.
Running time: 150 minutes
Release date: August 26th 2020
Studio: Warner Bros
Format: 1.43:1 (70 mm IMAX – most scenes), 1.90:1 (Digital IMAX – most scenes), 2.20:1 (70mm prints), 2.39:1 (35mm prints)
Director: Christopher Nolan
Producer: Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Music: Ludwig Göransson
The Protagonist: John David Washington
Neil: Robert Pattinson
Kat: Elizabeth Debicki
Ives: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Andrei Sator: Kenneth Branagh
Barbara: Clémence Poésy
Wheeler: Fiona Dourif
Sir Michael Crosby: Michael Caine
Mahir: Himesh Patel
Stephen: Andrew Howard
Sammy: Wes Chatham
Priya: Dimple Kapadia
Victor: Martin Donovan
Quinton: Yuri Kolokolnikov
Timmy: Rich Ceraulo Ko
Max: Laurie Shepherd
Toby: Mark Krenik
Sanjay Singh: Denzil Smith
Archibald: Jonathan Camp
Rohan: Anthony Molinari
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.