After spending an intense week of typing up my thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s varied filmography, it felt odd to watch something I did not feel so definite about. With each of his films giving off an immediate impression, Tenet left me unsurprisingly perplexed – but not in the intelligent blockbuster kind of way.
Tenet is a hard film to confine to a single sentenced synopsis. With a uber secret organisation behind his back, The Protagonist (and yes, he isn’t given a name other than so) is tasked with preventing World War Three, armed only with a word: Tenet. What followed is best left explained by the film, since no mortal man could take on such a task on memory alone.
Yet even after laying victim to the vitriol of “Ending Explained” videos, I still would not feel utterly confident to walk anyone through the plot points of this film. Nolan’s fascination with time is amplified and complexified to the point that you will likely feel the urge to draw out graphs and diagrams while talking about Tenet.
While these complexities have their benefits, I would like to start with why it doesn’t work. Tenet dons a snowball effects as its premise is explained and understood before evolving one step further. As the film progresses, you as the viewers feel like you are hanging on by a threat, afraid to misunderstand one element which would lead to you misunderstanding the next, and the next and so on. For so much of this film, I was so caught up in the understanding of it all, that I was unable to simply enjoy what was happening before me. A reverse car chase looks cool, but as you are having to keep track of one moving forward and the other back, and then the why of it all, those visuals lose some of their impact.
Yet on the flip side of this argument, Tenet is a film where multiple viewings feel necessary. Ever since leaving the cinema, I have been wracking my brain over the intricacies of its plot, and therefore reinvigorated my excitement over it. It feels refreshing to be thinking about a film the best part of a week after first seeing it, and my need to re-watch it is based on my enjoyment as much as it is my need for clarification. At the time of writing, second viewing tickets have been booked, and I both anticipate and hope that as I am dragged through the story of inverse chronology in a spy thriller, that that panicked state of understanding is alleviated, and in its place comes a feeling of narrative cohesiveness.
All of this talk of a complicated narrative may detract from some of the more immediately noticeable elements that Tenet does so right. Ludwig Göransson’s score is simply sublime. Standing in for Hans Zimmer, who was hard at work with Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune, Göransson manages to break the mold, whilst simultaneously staying truthful to that iconic style of soundtrack that Nolan is so enamoured by. Alongside a rip-roaring sound mix, Tenet’s soundtrack is as epic as its visuals.
And what visuals they are. Boasting its staggeringly low use of CGI, Tenet’s reversed visual trickery is utterly mesmerising. Watching a car flip back from a crash, or an exploded building reassemble and quickly explode once more ignites an almost childlike fascination that I certainly had from watching reversed home videos as a child. The practical impact of some of the visuals create something far more visceral and jaw dropping at times, whilst also avoiding that stunt-like aura that many “practical effects” can evoke.
Tenet’s ability to reignite cinema will depend on audience’s willingness to be taken along for this kind of story. While a film that demands multiple viewings has its perks for me as a film buff, for people just looking for a good time at the cinema, not having that instant sense of entertainment or satisfaction could be detrimental to Tenet’s success. Even as a pioneer of the intelligent blockbuster Nolan’s script here lacks the ease of access of some of his other films. Inception includes many layers to its narrative, but at no point do you feel lost or confused about what is happening. Tenet on the other hand wants to be studied, wants to be theorised over, and tries it best to keep its viewer in the dark for as long as it can. Tenet’sfuture ranking amongst Nolan’s filmography feels unsure at this point. Where with his other films I either liked or didn’t like, with Tenet I think it is a good movie, and I think I enjoyed it. Whether that opinion becomes more concrete after future viewings is unclear, but what is clear is that this may be Nolan’s most divisive and challenging yet.