Review: Visual Gymnastics, Laid-Back Cool and a Signature Grand Scale in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

In many ways, writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest blend of action, science fiction and all things massively scaled, Tenet, is a greatest hits package for the filmmaker, in all the good and bad that encompasses. The soundscape is bizarre, with ambient sounds, score and dialogue practically punching each other in the face for our attention. And in a film as dense and complicated as this one, dialogue should have been the clear winner a lot more often. The film is also one in which the passage of time needs to be rethought and redefined for the purposes of the story. In some instances, it passes as we see it—as we have seen it our entire lives—but for a few characters, most of the world is in reverse and the laws of physics, temperature, gravity, even breathing don’t work the same. It’s disorienting and exceedingly cool to watch it play out.

Tenet Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

As he often does, Nolan blends carefully researched science, scientific theory, and intelligent wishful thinking to construct a plot that involves saving the world from…something—one of the many things I’m not quite sure I ever deciphered in Tenet. But I know it involves someone transporting pieces of a dangerous weapon back from the future to the present using this so-called “time inversion.” And in the middle of all of this backwards and forwards, Nolan drops James Bond. Okay, not Bond by name, but by just about every other measure. John David Washington plays The Protagonist (I wish I were joking), who is the perfect combination of knowledge, skill, looks, and swagger. Despite its stakes, Tenet has the distinct pleasure of being one of the most laid-back and charming works Nolan has ever made, and that's due in large part to Washington and his chemistry with a newly recruited right-hand man Neil (Robert Pattinson), who does a remarkable job of knowing exactly what information or gear Washington needs before he even realizes it. It’s also clear that Neil is the possessor of many secrets that will be parceled out over the course of the 150-minute film.

There’s a wonderful, albeit too short sequence when The Protagonist is first learning of time inversion from a scientist (Clémence Poésy) who wants to know as little as possible about the nature of the danger it holds for the world and is only interested in the discovery itself. He is having trouble grasping how cause and effect have been reversed—How can a gun catch a bullet? How can an object rise into his hand that he hasn’t yet dropped?—and she simply replies (I’m paraphrasing a little), “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it.” I’ll fully admit, it was a bit of a relief that understanding time inversion wasn’t going to be on the test I was sure was coming when the film ended. Nolan effectively gives us permission to either fully engage and likely get lost or just sit back and marvel at the visual and technical achievements (many of which are in-camera, rather than with special effects).

We meet Washington’s CIA agent Protagonist (which he even calls himself at a couple points) as he stops a terrorist storming of a classical music concert. But the violent event is something of a ruse to get a piece of this mystery weapon, and it’s the first time he sees an example of inversion when a bullet seemingly dislodges near him and goes into a masked adversary’s gun. We also realize during this scene that there are going to be a lot of characters wearing masks, often covering their faces entirely, which means dialogue is lost with an alarming regularity. Words aren’t completely lost, but it does make us strain to really hit the nuances of certain moments (I promise I’ll stop talking about it now).

Without going too deeply into the plot, the inclusion of the Neil character makes the already affable Washington even more so. There are a couple of impressive action sequences early on, including one where Washington and Pattinson are propelled up the side of a building by essentially giant slingshots, and of course, they make it look effortless. The thrilling centerpiece of the movie involves driving a full-size jumbo jet into an airport hangar as a distraction so our heroes can steal a painting (it makes sense in the moment, I think). This scene leads to the first moment where we experience what an inverted fight sequence looks like, with Washington in brutal hand-to-hand combat with a masked offender who is clearly fighting in reverse while the Protagonist is moving forward. Just contemplating the mechanics of shooting such a sequence is almost enough to distract you from actually experiencing it, which is one of the reasons I made myself watch Tenet twice before reviewing it.

There are also smaller moments that are just as enjoyable, like on-off scenes with players like Poésy, Martin Donovan, and Nolan regular Michael Caine, who delivers one of the great lines about British snobbery. Like most Bond movies, Tenet also features a cartoonish villain in the guise of renegade Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who seems to have the ability to predict the future and uses it to effectively trap his statuesque wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) into staying with him instead of taking their young son and leaving, which would be her preference. Washington doesn’t so much fall in love with Kat, but he still finds ways to charm her to get an introduction to Sator in order to discover the threat he poses, which might begin a version of World War III that doesn’t involve nuclear weapons at all. Apparently the Protagonist isn’t a fan of marital bullying any more than he is the end of the world because much of what he does in this movie involves protecting and saving Kat—which isn’t really on mission, but it makes us like him more, if that’s possible.

As I said before, it’s incredibly easy to just allow the visual gymnastics of, for example, a partially in-reverse car chase to unfold before your eyes. Even cooler is when we get to experience some of these inverted action sequences a second time in the back half of the movie, but from a different perspective to help discover the full extent of what was at play during the chaos. Sometimes the gas masks that are frequently used are there to conceal as much as protect. Tenet’s climactic, extended battle sequence involves two divisions of the same military team (led by an almost unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson)—one moving forward, one moving backwards—attempting to stop Sator from using his assembled weapon. The visuals of a battle being fought in different directions is mind-bending and impossible to comprehend—again, a second viewing seems not only helpful, but essential.

In a strange way, even with its shortcomings, Tenet is loads of fun to absorb, whether you attempt to understand it or not. The crucial elements missing involve never really being sure what the danger of this weapon (called the Algorithm) really is. It might just send the world into pure insanity by blurring the lines between the directions of time, but who knows. The bigger question involves motivation. Despite a lengthy, whispered monologue by Branagh near the end of the film, I’m still not sure I get why he’s doing what he’s doing. Without internalizing the danger or motivation of Sator’s actions, Tenet loses a bit of its dramatic punch or urgency, despite the presence of an actual ticking clock in the final battle. Still, cinema is a visual medium, and there is absolutely no denying the breathtaking visuals Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have constructed for our enjoyment. I cannot wait to own a Blu-ray of Tenet so I can gleefully switch on the closed-captioning and really begin to appreciate its written nuances as well.

The film is now playing in a series of Early Access screenings through Sept. 2 before officially opening in theaters on Sept. 3; Music Box Theatre features a 70mm presentation. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.