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Christopher Nolan Boggles Minds & Bombards Senses With His Most Complex Movie Yet
Review originally published on 22nd August.
Christopher Nolan. His name is now synonymous with movies that feature signature overly-complex plot and mind-blowing twists. He experimented with non-linear structure with Memento and Inception, but Tenet is very much his grandest and most ambitious experiment yet.
Does that mean Tenet is his best movie to date? No, it probably isn’t. But this might very well become his most alienating and divisive movie as well.
Just like his previous movies, it’s best to watch Tenet fresh and without any prior foreknowledge. All I (and most of everyone else) knew about Tenet going into the movie was that the premise involved reverse time travel (or inversion) of some kind and thrilling international espionage.
Well, without spoiling anything, Tenet is essentially that, featuring a narrative that revolves around a physics-based time travel concept, which is refreshingly something unique and rarely (if ever) seen in any other science fiction movie before it.
This isn’t a conventional time-travel plot we’ve all seen a thousand times. Nolan knows it, having mulled over Tenet’s central ideas for more than a decade and taking over five years to write the screenplay.
I can’t actually reveal anything, but all I can say is that the time travel concept in Tenet is more complex and multi-faceted than anything I’ve ever seen before, based on inversion. Just like in Interstellar and Inception, Nolan has taken an (apparently) authentic concept of quantum physics and applied it to Tenet. The problem with all this is it may all just go over the heads of casual viewers, and they may require multiple viewings to fully understand what’s actually transpired in Tenet.
However, the breakneck pacing in Tenet leaves no room for viewers to breathe, as exposition and action scenes arrive one after another. Just when viewers learn something new, the characters in Tenet are already on the move to the next thing. Viewers barely have time to digest this new morsel of information before they’re thrust into yet another scene.
With Tenet, it really seems like Nolan is trying to both boggle the mind and bombard the senses at the same time. Tenet features some of the most impressive epic setpieces ever witnessed in a Nolan movie, and this includes even the mind-bending reality-shifting dreamscapes in Inception.
They’re even more incredible, considering that these are all mostly practical effects with real vehicles, real explosions, and real stunts.
For instance, that aeroplane crash sequence seen in the trailers (and in the movie) was accomplished using an actual Boeing 747 aircraft. Nolan described it as “cost-effective” and the rest of the movie follows the same mantra. Viewers should expect more scenes like that in the movie, especially one scene in particular that involves multiple vehicles on the highway (which happens to be my favourite scene in the entire movie).
Astoundingly, even the reverse time travel sequences were filmed in real-time, instead of just rewinding the normal footage to make it look running in backwards. Tenet is basically Nolan flexing everything he has learned over the years, applying it here.
On a purely technical and narrative level, Tenet is Nolan’s most ambitious effort yet, though it’s not all perfect. The first half of the two-and-a-half-hour duration of the movie is straightforward and less complicated (with an explosive opening). That’s before the movie kicks into high gear in the second half without letting up until the very end.
Don’t get me wrong; once again Nolan has managed to accomplished a great cinematic feat. However, trying to wrap your head around the confusing and convoluted time travel concepts while being overwhelmed is not for everyone but the most invested.
That said, a glaring problem I’d like to point out in Tenet is the sound mixing and editing. Nolan’s movies have often suffered from what seems to be atrocious sound mixing and editing, most obviously observed in Interstellar, Dunkirk, and now, Tenet.
The marvellous orchestral score by composer Ludwig GÃ¶ransson (of The Mandalorian and Black Panther fame) is exceptional. Unfortunately, it always drowns out the dialogue in the movie.
Even in relatively peaceful scenes where two characters are simply talking, there’s a rising score in the background that overpowers the scene, rendering the dialogue unclear and robbing them of their power.
This problem doesn’t ruin the movie, but it still negatively affects the cinematic experience. Nolan keeps making the same mistake in almost every movie. It’s a minor one, but still noticeable either way.
In addition, there are many moments of foreshadowing in Tenet for eagle-eyed viewers and I’m sure many of them will be dissecting this movie for many years to come. This is a movie that would definitely benefit from second viewings onward. I know I’m ready for mine.
Tenet boasts a cast of amazing actors, including John David Washington (of HBO’s Ballers and 2018’s BlacKkKlansman fame) as the Protagonist. Nolan’s movies usually struggle with compelling or complex characters, but Tenet fares a bit better on that end in regards to several of its characters. The Protagonist is not one of them.
It’s not that the Protagonist is bland, but it’s more that the supporting cast overshadows him and shines more brightly, especially Elizabeth Debicki and Robert Pattinson. They’re the standout roles, delivering brilliant emotional range in this movie. Kenneth Branagh is also menacing as the antagonist. Other characters played by Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Dimple Kapadia, and Himesh Patel have smaller roles, but some are more memorable than others.
If there’s one problem with the Protagonist, it doesn’t feel like his motivations are justified or developed well enough in the movie, especially when compared to Inception‘s Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) or Interstellar‘s Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). John David Washington’s character may be called the Protagonist but he doesn’t get half as much development as the characters portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki and Robert Pattinson.
It is this humble writer’s opinion that Inception remains Nolan’s crowning jewel, but Tenet will probably still impress viewers with its narrative and cinematic prowess nevertheless. If you’re already a huge fan of Nolan and his movies, you will very likely adore Tenet with all your soul.
Only time will tell if Tenet will be as fondly remembered as Nolan’s other movies, or where it will eventually place in the echelon of science fiction movies in history.
Tenet is slated to premiere in Malaysian cinemas on 27 August 2020. In the meantime, check out the trailer below.
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