Film & TV

Film Review: Tenet

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet (2020) Photo credit: IMDb and Warner Bros.

By Pui Kuan Cheah

★★★ + half a star = 3.5 stars

*Spoilers have been avoided in this article!

“Don’t try to understand it,” Clémence Poésy’s Laura tells John David Washington’s The Protagonist, as she demonstrates the phenomenon of a backward-moving bullet to him.

Laura isn’t wrong – this is the advice everyone going into the theatre to watch Christopher Nolan’s new release Tenet should take for their first watch at least.

I was mad excited to be going back to the cinema after 7 months to see this latest blockbuster release. I have to admit, I haven’t seen all of Nolan’s films, but I’ve watched a few to understand that his films aren’t the easiest to comprehend especially in terms of their concepts. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, he has this fascination with concepts surrounding time, and usually ends up with a pretty complex plot. Tenet was no exception to this, and yet I still found myself thoroughly enjoying myself in the theatre.

Tenet’s trailers really helped with the hype surrounding it, showing off an impressive number of action sequences with an upbeat soundtrack accompanying them. In essence, this was the entirety of the film, except with a whole concept of time inversion wrapped with it. Here’s the (very) basic plot of the film: a spy (he has no name, so we just refer to him as The Protagonist) exists in a world where time inversion is being utilised for global-scale destruction, and he is given the mission to stop this before it’s too late. Think of it as if James Bond and physics concepts came together and had a baby. 

The word ‘tenet’ is a palindrome – it reads the same forwards as it does backwards, and this is how audiences first figured the time inversion plotline when the title was released. As a result, the film features scenes that move forwards and backwards. We have car chases, intense fast-paced fight scenes, boats, and even a plane crash all happening both ways. Sound confusing? This is one of the reasons I’d recommend watching it, to see how Nolan and his team executed all of it. He opted for the usage of solely practical effects and no green screen, and keeping this in mind I was left in awe watching how everything played out. Pretty brilliant I must say, and you’ll likely not get bored.

The film features a great lineup of actors, all who delivered well: John David Washington (as previously mentioned), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Kat), Dimple Kapadia (Priya), Kenneth Branagh (Andrei), among many others. Notably, Washington served all the swagger one could possibly ask from a lead in a spy-action film, and Pattinson provided the charm which honestly made me glad that he was onscreen for most of the film. Debicki was given opportunities to show off her acting chops despite not being the lead, which was the cherry on top of it all.

The thing with Tenet is that because it is so mystifying and convoluted, it’s practically begging audiences to come back for repeat viewings so that they can slowly pick up any of the pieces that may help them better understand the ending of the film. This may be a turn off for some, but I think that’s what makes the film so interesting. It makes you think, and keeps you fully engaged with the film. Also, I’d say that while the first half of Tenet might hurt your brain as everything is hurling right at you, with scientific-sounding terms and phrases thrown here and there, the second half progressively ties everything together. You may not come out of the theatre with 100% understanding of the film, but at least the very basics which is really all most of us need.

My only complaint about the film is the fact that it really is more style over substance. It is definitely a spectacle to behold – I mean, how many films have you seen actually crash a whole 747 plane, or a backwards car chase/crash scene? However, I felt that the villain storyline of Andrei Sator in particular could have had a tad bit more depth to it, having been the basis of the main conflict of the story. Going into a Nolan movie, you’re not expecting a fully character driven story, just like many other action films, but this storyline felt empty as characters were mostly shallow and weren’t expanded on as much as I thought they could’ve been – except maybe Debicki’s Kat which formed the more dramatic moments of the film. Nonetheless, I’d say the intriguing time inversion concept behind it paired with the acting and action overshadowed it, so it wasn’t all that distracting.

Judging by comments I’ve seen floating around social media, it seems that audiences are fairly divided over their feelings regarding Tenet, but I’d say to give it a shot and see for yourself. It isn’t your typical time-travel film that has been done plenty, and so it feels fresh (and you’ll have a good brain workout when it’s all done). I’ll definitely be returning for a second watch to give myself the chance to see what I missed.

Tenet is now showing in cinemas nationwide.