There’s a scene in Tenet where upon preparing to head into the inverted world – where the entropy of objects is reversed such that they move backgrounds through time, rather than trudging ever forward as we’re used to – when John David Washington’s protagonist, literally titled Protagonist, is given some sage advice by an army commander: take a minute to orient yourself, you will feel different. The same could be said for film diehards heading back to cinemas after some six months of COVID- induced closures. The smell of the popcorn, the enveloping darkness of the theatre, the surround sound – not to mention the complexity of the subject matter – after half a year of streaming nostalgic television series from Netflix, is like diving into an advanced Barry’s Bootcamp class having never worked out.
Before we get into the Tenet movie review, a disclaimer: by seeing this film IRL in a cinema does by no stretch mean that I or Esquire Singapore endorse returning to cinemas. My personal experience, at Golden Village in Tiong Bahru, was that the space appeared clean, and social distancing was observed via the dispersed layout of the seating chart, though the sound of snacks being munched would suggest masks were off. Tenet is a film that seems designed for the big screen – filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s preferred aspect ratio is 70mm IMAX – but whichever way you choose to see it, I wager you’ll still come away just as confused.
"Perhaps due to the complexity of the subject matter, or Nolan’s ambition in adding layers and layers of pseudo-science to what is essentially an action-heist film, character development is lacking."
It’s not giving anything away to explain that Tenet – a palindrome, if you didn’t notice it already – is about time inversion, a theme Nolan has explored, with much success, since his earliest films. The mind-bending visual paradoxes of Inception, the time-space continuum of Interstellar, the gaps and memory games of Memento – they’re all ideas that culminate in Tenet, the most anticipated film of 2020 (bar No Time To Die, though who knows if the release for that will be delayed again). As Washington initially grapples with what he’s seeing – bullets flying backwards out of stone walls and returning the gun from which they were supposedly fired – a scientist, played by Clemence Poésy, tells him: “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it.” After attempting to follow on with what was happening, Poésy’s line acts as permission to settle back. You’re not necessarily going to understand, so enjoy the film on more of a surface level.
Thankfully, Nolan is an aesthete who doesn’t sacrifice style for a storyline, and his ongoing collaborations with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk) and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland (Dunkirk, Inception) are key aspects of Tenet’s success. The costumes, in particular, are standout – silk scarves, beautifully cut wool suits, the fit of bullet-proof vests, even a buttoned-up polo shirt – all in tones that never stray from a mesmeric neutral palette and which add a sophistication to the visual language of the film. Van Hoytema takes it all in with a mixture of slow panning shots and rapid, hand-held frames that mirror the anxiety-inducing nature Ludwig Göransson’s score. A frame of damsel Elizabeth Debicki standing, dressed in head-to-toe cream, within a row of Roman busts atop an Italian cliff is painterly in its composition, while the frenetic pacing of a scene on the most modern catamaran you’ve ever seen is enough to keep you out of the water.
Perhaps due to the complexity of the subject matter, or Nolan’s ambition in adding layers and layers of pseudo-science to what is essentially an action-heist film, character development is lacking, and the film suffers for it. Poésy, along with Aaron Taylor-Johnson Michael Caine – who we can only assume is contractually obliged to appear in every Nolan film much as Stan Lee made a cameo in every Marvel flick – are relegated to little more than a line of dialogue each. Debicki, playing much the same role as she did in The Night Manager, spends so much time delivering frosty contempt for her husband (Kenneth Brannagh as an ill-cast power-hungry Russian oligarch) that she never really warms up to Washington, and the missing chemistry is a disappointing hole in the film. Robert Pattinson makes up for a lot if it, and in many ways, steals the show with a charming raffishness that offers the film’s only moments of levity. The way he plays off of Washington’s naïve seriousness is proof of Pattinson’s chops as an actor.
"Tenet is a film that seems designed for the big screen – filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s preferred aspect ratio is 70mm IMAX – but whichever way you choose to see it, I wager you’ll still come away just as confused."
This film carries the double burden of being the carrot that will bring audiences back to cinemas after the Covid closure, and indeed revive the fortunes of movie studios. That’s not fair to Tenet, but then again, there was nothing stopping this film, like Bond and countless others, from further delaying its theatrical release. But the greater burden for Nolan is Nolan himself, a filmmaker that continues with each project to defy audience expectations and raise his own bar. That we’ve come to expect so much from Nolan is both a compliment and a curse, and though Tenet is a good film – a really, really strong piece of filmmaking – the aforementioned context through which we view it means that it unfortunately falls just short.
Tenet is now playing at Golden Village cinemas across Singapore.