Movie Review

Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' is a too-clever-for-its-own-good time puzzle

This James Bond-meets-Stephen Hawking sci-fi blockbuster will leave you feeling overwhelmed rather than enlightened

06 September 2020 - 00:01 By
John David Washington as 'The Protagonist' in 'Tenet'.
John David Washington as 'The Protagonist' in 'Tenet'.
Image: Supplied

There's a lot of pressure on Christopher Nolan's latest blockbuster for physics geeks to be the saviour of cinema in the era of Covid-19. Not since a 1962 opening in October in Havana during the Cuban missile crisis has a film had to live up to the question of whether or not it's worth potentially risking your life to see it.

Added to this is the less than satisfactory experience that currently constitutes going to the cinema - you can't sit next to your loved ones or family; the reduced capacity restrictions mean that the audience is much smaller than normal and, of course, the ticket price is still steep. All of which are considerations that Nolan didn't realise he'd have to deal with when he was spending almost a quarter of a billion dollars to produce Tenet.

They are, however, considerations that can't be ignored and while there's plenty of head-scratching, brain-tingling puzzle solving to be had here, it's not always satisfactorily serviced to the rest of the elements of this James Bond-meets-Stephen Hawking sci-fi timebender.

John David Washington plays a character who, halfway through two and a half hours of physics-defying, impressive action set pieces, earnestly tells us he's simply called "The Protagonist" - a special ops man tasked with saving the world from an unspecified apocalyptic event worse than nuclear annihilation.

WATCH | 'Tenet' trailer.

The Protagonist teams up with a winking, immaculately tailored sidekick Neil (Robert Pattinson) and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the beautiful but battered and deeply unhappy wife of villainous Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh in dizzyingly over-the-top baddie form). Together they must race against time in a fight that involves evil men from the future with weapons that allow for their entropy to be reversed - making it possible for bullets and other nasty things to move backwards and forwards in time.

Like it's palindromic title - things in the (not always as carefully thought out as they should have been) universe of Tenet - can be both the right way and wrong way around, simultaneously. Whether there's much more to the gimmick than this is up to you to decide. It gets complicated and it's certainly the kind of Nolan trickery that will lead to much back and forth speculation and analysis of its physical probability. In a "normal time" this might lead to revisits to the cinema to try and figure it all out.

But during this particular moment, Tenet ends up being a big-budget, luxury multi-location, dazzlingly tailored exercise in attempting to tie some spectacular and intricately choreographed action ballet to a too-clever-for-its-own-good time puzzle that leaves you overwhelmed rather than enlightened. It's certainly a welcome reminder of the awesome escapist possibilities of the big screen but it becomes tiresome well before its 150-minute, overwrought, action-filled conclusion.

As The Protagonist is advised early on by the Q-like stand-in scientist played by Clémence Poésy, we're not really supposed to understand what's going on so much as "feel it". What Tenet ultimately feels like is a very expensive, elegantly tailored suit that can't quite hide the somewhat flabby, embarrassing body underneath it.

• 'Tenet' is in cinemas now.

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