Christopher Nolan’s latest mega-budgeted mind trip unravels the linear concept of time in an extravaganza that intrigues and baffles in equal measure. 



Tenet is the word. And the word means “a principle or belief”. So much is riding on Warner Bros’ new epic that it doesn’t seem public-spirited to say a bad word about it. If Tenet fails to attract a large audience, other blockbusters may be put on ice, to be thawed at some unforeseeable date. Tenet does, though, demand to be seen on the big screen as it’s a true cinematic beast. Hell, this is Christopher Nolan we’re talking about. Nolan is the only filmmaker in the world who can twist Hollywood around his little finger. That is, he can convince giant corporations to invest unspeakable millions into his esoteric, highly personal ventures that aren’t based on established brand recognition; films like Inception, Interstellar and, indeed, Tenet.


It is gratifying to read that the two stars of the film, John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, have publicly admitted that they’re not sure what the film is about. So what is it about? Um, it’s largely about a Ukraine-engineered weapon that can revert linear time, thus altering the outcome of any given event. It’s a handy device as most people are still locked into the tenet of an acceptable reality that matches their own vision. But the world really, really isn’t like that.


Like many of Nolan’s films, Tenet starts with a sensational bang and doesn’t let up for a considerable stretch of celluloid, propelled by Ludwig Göransson's bombastic score. On the soundtrack, an orchestra is tuning up at the National Opera House in Kiev when a small army of terrorists storms the building, gases the entire audience and wrecks the priceless instruments on stage. One of the assailants is our hero (Washington), known only as The Protagonist, working undercover for the CIA in cahoots with the Russians. The first line of dialogue out of his mouth is “we live in a twilight world,” which pretty much serves as the film’s catchphrase. Nothing is as it seems, and even the weapon that The Protagonist has been charged with retrieving is way beyond his ken. But, unlike all the other shadowy figures around him, The Protagonist is a moral man, who sacrifices his own life in order to preserve the identity and safety of his colleagues.


When he wakes up, another shadowy figure, played by Martin Donovan, reveals, “your duty transcends national interests. This is about survival.” “Whose?” The Protagonist asks. “Everyone’s,” Donovan replies. Another mysterious operative (Clémence Poésy) is more forthcoming. She explains that a nuclear bomb can only wipe out our future, whereas this new weapon can eradicate our past, which is far worse.


Christopher Nolan has always enjoyed playing with the elasticity of time, right from his first break-out hit, Memento, in 2000 (whose narrative played out backwards). Here, on a reported budget of $225 million, Nolan gets to use terms like “temporal war” and shoot scenes that unfold in non-linear time, notably a car chase in which vehicles simultaneously race backwards and forwards. He certainly knows how to mount a large-scale spectacle. Filmed in the US, Estonia, Italy, Denmark, India, Norway and London, Tenet zips around the globe with consummate elegance, defying the laws of international travel as it does scientific reason. Our Protagonist just pops up where the script demands, with exotic backgrounds shifting around like so much stage scenery. And there’s the usual roster of top-rate acting talent on show, from Kenneth Branagh as a solipsistic Russian oligarch, Elizabeth Debicki as his troubled trophy wife and Nolan’s lucky mascot, Michael Caine (who, deferentially, is referred to as “Sir Michael” on screen).


Ultimately, Tenet is like a speeded-up game of chess in reverse and if that is your bag, you may just about tag along with Nolan’s vision. Like Inception, it will take numerous viewings to untangle the interior logic. However, while it is never less than engaging, it is never quite as exhilarating as one might have hoped for.




Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh, Martin Donovan, Fiona Dourif, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Denzil Smith, Andrew Howard, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Laurie Shepherd.


Dir Christopher Nolan, Pro Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan, Screenplay Christopher Nolan, Ph Hoyte van Hoytema, Pro Des Nathan Crowley, Ed Jennifer Lame, Music Ludwig Göransson, Costumes Jeffrey Kurland.


Warner Bros. Pictures/Syncopy-Warner Bros.

149 mins. UK/USA. 2020. Rel: 26 August 2020. Cert. 12A.