After Christopher Nolan releases a movie, I’m sure he spends his weekends reading all the reviews, laughing at pundits and poor reviewers like me trying to decipher his latest masterpiece.
As the creator of movies including Memento, Interstellar and Inception, Nolan has a penchant for mind-bending plot lines and visual effects that provoke our thinking and reimagine how we perceive the world. Occasionally he takes a break from the boggling to give us an epic cinematic experience like his Batman saga or Dunkirk – and in Tenet he’s chosen to fuse together the two.
John David Washington (eldest son of Denzel, star of BlacKkKlansman), plays The Protagonist – a non-descript agent who’s called upon to help save the world from destruction by a weapon that alters time and how matter functions within it. Along the way he’s introduced to ‘Tenet’ – a word that describes the agency he’s been enlisted by, and the framework the world’s operating within.
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Blending high-speed car chases and lavish surrounds with time travel and family drama, Tenet is best understood by imagining a Bond movie and The Matrix had a baby.
Once you’ve got that settled, you can immerse yourself in a story about the impact of our choices, and how intertwined all of our lives really are. Layered within that are big ideas about war and weaponry, international relations and the power-plays between husbands and wives; Neither your senses or your intellect get a break in Tenet, and it’s wonderful.
Kenneth Branagh’s Disturbingly Brilliant Role
The cast are also perfectly chosen, with Kenneth Branagh being disturbingly brilliant as the evil Russian oligarch overseeing the end of the world, and Australia’s Elizabeth Debicki balancing out his heavy-handedness with her fierce disenchantment as his estranged wife. Robert Pattinson shows he’s also well and truly outgrown his Twilight roots, calming the nerves of any Batman fans doubting his ability to play the caped crusader in 2021.
Watching Nolan wrestle with the realities of time and how it shapes human existence is reminiscent of the Christian viewer trying to understand how God knows “the end from the beginning“ (Isaiah 46), and how He can be so completely in our future and our present at the same time.
Filmmakers like Nolan get all the gadgetry and plots and the famous faces to explore them with, but all of us ponder the same questions: how do I fit in the eternal timeline? Do my choices really matter? Can I live with the wisdom of the future, today?
Reason to Leave the Couch and Head to the Cinema
Tenet doesn’t provide any definite answers – unless you watch it twice perhaps, but it does offer a worthy reason to return to the cinema. When you watch it, you realise in all our at-home streaming and movie downloads, we’ve missed something.
From the sheer size of the screen and your ability to immerse yourself in a story away from unfolded laundry in the corner and neighbours mowing their lawn, there’s a grand kind of storytelling you just can’t replicate on your couch – no matter how many new shows we discover.
For a brief moment between hand sanitising and following the one-way entry and exit signs, you’ll find yourself lost in that sweet space of escapism in an alternate reality full of wonder and possibilities. Your imagination is taken to new places, and you see the world around you through a new lens. That’s why Tenet could be the ‘saviour of cinema’ that movie bosses hope it will be.
It distinguishes between what viewers will be satisfied to watch at home, and what they’ll leave the house for. Creators who follow in Nolan’s wake won’t have to make the same kind of drama, but they’ll have to write and shoot specifically for the uniqueness of the format and audience experience – not for sheer consumption.
Tenet is thought provoking, and masterful at using the tools Nolan’s got at his disposal. It is likely you’ll need to see it more than once to fully understand it and confirm your suspicions, but why wouldn’t you want to? It’s worth the extra choc top and slapping on a face mask.
Tenet is for mature audiences, and in cinemas now.