Dunkirk represented a departure and to some degree a step down from Chris Nolan’s signature approach of amazing but grounded visuals with tightly wound, very innovative storytelling.
It was great cinema, but the straightforward retelling of the titular World War II evacuation from occupied France was, while tactile and heart-in-the-throat powerful, missing the grand narrative ambition of Interstellar or the Swiss watch precision of Memento or Inception.
Tenet marks a return to what Nolan grew into when he started commanding blockbuster budgets – an action thriller director who knows how to realise the visual potential of an out-of-the-box premise. Lead John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) was quite right when he called it ‘related by marriage’ to Inception – Tenet’s bedrock is one of Nolan’s most returned-to themes, the nature of time.
Washington plays an unnamed CIA spy (referred to only as ‘the protagonist’) who we meet just before a very high pressure mission. A brutalist opera hall in Kiev is besieged by terrorists who hold the orchestra and audience hostage, and as the SWAT trucks show up, the protagonist and his team are affixing fake police patches to the arms of their riot gear to blend in with the cops. They storm the building incognito with a mission of their own – extract a high value industrialist from one of the viewing boxes.
Amidst the running, shooting, fighting and panic, the protagonist sees something slightly unbelievable in the melee – a bullet impact on a balustrade nearby that seems to be smoking and crumbling in reverse – but he barely has time to consider it when things go awry and he’s captured by the terrorists. Tied to a chair with a co-worker in a dreary railyard somewhere in the former Soviet Union, he’s tortured and beaten before managing to swallow the suicide pill his colleague slips him rather than give the mission up.
Expecting to have died, he later wakes up aboard a ship steaming through the ocean where a handler he doesn’t know explains that the suicide pill (a fake) was a test, that he passed, and that he’s being offered a place on a very elite team on something called Tenet. Working with the incredible technology that explains the otherworldly bullet impact, he’s tasked with stopping a vicious Russian oligarch and arms dealer, Sator (Kenneth Brannagh) from preventing World War III.
He finds himself in a top secret lab where a scientist (Clémence Poésy) explains the amazing things you’ve seen in the trailer – bullets jumping off tables into his hand, cars screaming backwards down a freeway, a fist fight when one of the combatants appears to be moving backwards.
As with the films of JJ Abrams, to reveal what it all means would be to blow the surprise of the premise (by now it’s probably been spoiled for you anyway, but I’m not going to contribute to such toxicity). But the protagonist teams up with another operative, Neil (Robert Pattinson, whose hair we haven’t seen this lush since his sparkly vampire days) on the trail of where the seemingly-magic bullets come from, which leads them to a Mumbai arms dealer with an incredible story about Sator and the connections he has to the new technology.
The protagonist’s way in is Sator’s estranged wife, the regal but put-upon Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). If he helps her escape Sator’s clutches with their young son, she’ll provide the introduction. Wanting to help Kat, he and Neil orchestrate a robbery at a high end art storage facility, their cover the hijacking and crashing of a plane into the airport hangar where it’s housed.
His cover to get Sator to trust him is then to steal plutonium for Sator’s weapons interests, but during the breakneck sting that takes place on a Norwegian highway a car approaches, driving backwards and looking very menacing in doing so. The window goes down to reveal Sator himself, wearing an oxygen mask and with a gun to his unconscious wife’s head. He’s onto them, and he knows that the protagonist’s wanting to save Kat’s life gives Sator what he really wants (and it’s not plutonium).
Having to learn the secret behind tenet, the protagonist goes through a crash course of fire being cold, birds flying backwards and even having to take your own air with you (in the form of the oxygen mask) because the new world you’re entering is the exact opposite of what you’re used to – literally.
Confused? You will be. Like with Inception or Memento, don’t drink too much before going into the cinema, because missing even 60 seconds for a restroom break will put you at a disadvantage. Even at nearly two and a half hours the pace is breakneck, and not just in the blistering set pieces but when characters are simply talking. The sparse, clipped dialogue doesn’t waste a single word or phrase, all of it explaining the incredible world you’ve entered.
If you’re paying attention you’ll enjoy plenty of it on your first pass – even if it’s the amazing visuals – but like all Nolan’s films it will reward repeated viewing exponentially.
And the visuals are indeed amazing, getting much more complicated than what you’ve seen in the trailer. Doing as much as he can in camera like usual (the 747 airliner ramming the airplane hangar is all real), Nolan employs minimal VFX, and what little exists isn’t showy or video game-like. It begins kind of simply, with bullets flying back into guns or cars driving backwards, and ends up with soldiers running both forwards and backwards on the dusty wastes of an abandoned Russian city, explosions and gunfire going off backwards around them – all in the same frame.
You’ll find yourself wondering afterward how it was all handled. Apparently Nolan had half his actors do their actions forwards and half do them backwards, but the reversed plumes of fire, dust and exploding concrete must have been done by splicing a reversed film into the action. Whatever the logistical nightmare involved, the result is something you’ve certainly never seen before.
It’a also interesting how Nolan’s name was thrown about a few years back in relation to the James Bond franchise. Tenet feels just like they asked him to make a Bond film that as very much a Nolan jam too, containing all the stuff fans (and he himself) love in his movies – the physical nature of time, big budget action and very realistic visuals.
In an age where superheroes, never ending franchises and family-friendly CGI animation still reign supreme on big screens and everything smart and interesting is relegated to streamers, Nolan is one of the last holdouts powerful enough to command the huge midyear release of an event movie that’s not based on a toy or comic book. He’s back now with what he does best, perfectly blending the cerebral with the commercial, and Tenet’s position in the firmament of pop culture will only grow the older it gets.
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