'Tenet' Review: The Next Logical Step in Christopher Nolan's Progression

Neil and Protagonist examine crime scene
[L-R] Robert Pattinson as Neil and John David Washington as the Protagonist in TENET

Watching a Christopher Nolan film for the first time is always disorienting. Unlike many directors, Nolan isn't so much interested in plot as he is the journey of his characters from helpless victim to persons of agency and power. Often his characters seek to change the course of events. Their guilt over a past mistake leaves them hungry for the chance to create the future they desire. Whether they manipulate time, dreams, memory, or the very human psyche, the characters in Nolan's films are agents of change. 

A very short plot summary: the protagonist of the movie (we never get a name) gets recruited by a secret organization known only as Tenet. They are trying to stop World War III by controlling the flow of time.

Like Nolan's other films, Tenet requires viewers to take in information as it is teaching us the rules of the world of Nolan's vision. Concepts are thrown out casually as if we are all nuclear physicists. Then a demonstration is made of the concept, allowing us to digest some of the idea -- but only a tidbit. We learn along with the protagonist as to what we are seeing and must scramble to make sense of it as we can. What sets Tenet apart from Nolan's other work is that he moves even further away from the emphasis on plot, relationship dynamics, and even script. Looking back at Nolan's films, we can see a progression from plot-centered movies or character-driven movies to nonlinear and unconventional storylines that leave us thinking about the possibilities. The plot and the characters aren't truly the point; they are pawns to use as demonstrations of the theory Nolan wants to test. Tenet is Nolan's most abstract product thus far; the main character is even simply called "the Protagonist." 

Protagonist learns about inverted bullets
Clemensy Poesy as Barbara and John David Washington as the Protagonist in TENET

Movies like The Prestige and Memento are character-driven films. Inception has character development and strong relationship dynamics, combined with philosophical what-if scenarios. Interstellar has a plot and some character development but the emphasis is on the emotional resonance of its characters. Tenet takes things one step further. We don't get to know much about the main character at all, the relationship of the characters on-screen are superficial and only necessary to make the story work. We are told, not shown that the Protagonist and Neil have a strong friendship and that the Protagonist cares for Kat. Yet we must assume this is intentional. Nolan wants to keep us at a distance. We are not to care for these characters as we did the characters of Inception or Interstellar. Tenet is a new type of film.

One of the more disappointing components of Tenet is the acting. John David Washington as the Protagonist lacks an emotional core. As an action star, his skill can't be questioned, and during wordless moments, his charisma is undisputed. The dialogue delivery, however, lacks affect. I don't believe what he is saying. Elizabeth Debicki as Kat and Kenneth Branagh as Sator are acceptable. Robert Pattinson has the strongest screen presence by far, delivering amused and sardonic lines in a truly delightful way. 

Protagonist and Kat ride on boat
[L-R] Elizabeth Debicki as Kat and John David Washington as the Protagonist in TENET

The action scenes are worth the price of admission alone. Nolan always excels at creating exciting operatic scenes, accompanied by a booming soundtrack. Ludwig Goransson's breathtaking soundtrack becomes even more compelling at this reveal: matching the themes of the movie, each piece plays the same forwards and backwards, creating a perfect accompaniment to Nolan's work. While the pace and volume dynamics used in the movie keep the dialogue from being discernible, viewers can look forward to a home release, when captions will be an option. Nolan's Tenet isn't the best of his movies, but it's a mistake to see it as a bad movie. And I think, with time, viewers learn to appreciate it more.

Final rating: 4 out of 5

Release: Tenet is now playing in theaters, where government regulations allow.