Review: ‘Tenet’ (fight the future)

James Bond’s excellent adventure.

After inexplicably surviving his last mission, a clandestine operative (John David Washington) is briefed by Victor (Martin Donovan) to chase down a new lead, including a cryptic gesture and a single word: “Tenet.” Objects are being found which contain unusual properties, as if time for them is somehow inverted and even observed moving in reverse — catching bullets instead of firing them. Fearful that similar materials are being sent from the future to influence or even destroy the past, the operative secures assistance from overly well-informed agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) providing additional clues. Their investigation points to a reclusive oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh), but even getting to him through his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) appears doomed; the untouchable villain always seems to be in the right place at the right time… and time is running out.

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Tenet was supposed to be the great return to the cinema once COVID-19 closed theater chains, a giant summer tentpole movie akin to Inception. After multiple postponements, the film finally got pushed out in early September, but not everyone was near an open theater showing it… or in many cases willing to risk seeing it. While films like Bill and Ted Face the Music have gone straight to VOD and video to varying degrees of success, Nolan wasn’t willing to compromise. While trying to sound less dramatic than “Is it really worth your life?” does Nolan’s latest mind-bender stack up against his own previous outings — being one of this year’s few blockbusters willing to take a chance on finding willing audiences?

Tenet asks viewers to trust what’s going on will make sense… once it reveals its secret mechanism, aka “the rules.” It’s as straight-forward a time-travel concept as you can imagine that doesn’t initially seem that way; once the movie magic is revealed, it becomes much harder to fool the audience. Nolan chooses not to hide anything as his narrative charges forward, so if viewers figure out what to look for, they’ll be rewarded with seeing what’s coming… much like the characters themselves. This is one of those rare instances where seeing the film more than once actually reaps a reward, but it’s near impossible to explain why until it’s been seen the first time. For anyone still having trouble following the loop-backed nonlinear sequences after the reveal, what remains will look like a lot of pretty yet meaningless violence set to sweeping music swells.

Looper-inspired yet more Bill and Ted in its linear thinking, its the 007 references that shout out the film’s intent. It’s as if producer Barbara Broccoli flat-out told Christopher Nolan “no” when asked if he could direct a James Bond movie. The thought process that followed might have echoed those Idris Elba fan-casting ideas along with “What kind of film would never be used for Bond? Time travel!” Otherwise, it’s all here: the Bond girl, the supervillain, the exotic locations, the double-agents, the gadgets, and even a room full of guys training for a final assault. Martin Donovan makes a decent M while Kenneth Branagh always makes a great bad guy. Of course, our hero should burn his asset — to save the world or whatever — but he’s too smitten with Elizabeth Debicki’s character to leave her to be dipped in gold. Hey, there wasn’t any other Bond film this year, now that No Time to Die has gotten pushed to to April 2021 as of this writing.

The film isn’t perfect; viewers will have to make a lot of assumptions to accept everything that’s happening. Nolan doesn’t waste time on lengthy explanations or exposition, but once the mechanism is revealed, it isn’t too hard to speculate why some things exist. Washington’s operative spends too much of the film growing into Nolan’s alt-007, while Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale allowed James Bond to be Bond even while becoming Bond. Hilariously, the film’s biggest failure is the appearance of the physical McGuffin itself which can only be described as the Crankshaft of Doom; while it makes sense that Nolan wanted a film less about special effects and more with physical sets using camera tricks, this particular plot point would have benefited from some better production design — perhaps something inspired by Apple rather than Ford Motors.

Tenet is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references, brief strong language, and I’ll catch you on the flip side!

Four skull recommendation out of four

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