Tenet Review: Nolan’s Newest Blockbuster is thrilling but Lacking

Christopher Nolan’s love affair with the concept of time has always managed to seep its way into his work – from the backwards “Memento” through to the non-linear structure of “Dunkirk”. It has never been more evident, however, than in his latest effort – the spy thriller/sci-fi action blockbuster “Tenet”. Starring the likes of John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Nolan regular Michael Caine, the film sees Washington get sucked into a world of time inversion – a fresh way of exploring time travel concepts and ideas. 

Indeed, it is when Nolan pushes these ideas forward that the film truly shines. Nolan crafts interesting and unique set pieces, particularly in the latter third of the film, where he goes all out with the time travel shenanigans. The fight choreography is great, with even the non-time related fight sequences being fun to watch. The combination of practical and CGI effects is a legitimately impressive spectacle to behold, as characters and objects move backward through time, yet still interact with our forward-moving protagonists. 

All of this is only added to by Ludwig Göransson’s fantastic score, much of which was composed and recorded in various musicians’ homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a score that feels as epic and bombastic as the film itself. However, that is often to the film’s detriment. The audio mixing, an element of filmmaking you hardly notice unless it’s really awful, is indeed really awful. The dialogue is often muffled due to the characters wearing masks, and the score drowns out any sort of communication during the action sequences. Nolan makes the inexplicable choice to set one important exposition scene on a speedboat, so it’s almost impossible to hear what the characters are saying over the sound of the boat, the waves, and the throbbing score he layers over it. None of this is helped by the lackluster editing – most scenes end very abruptly, leaving little to no time for any of the information to settle in. 

This is somehow not even the film’s biggest problem. That honour is reserved for something that plagues the majority of Nolan’s work – his seeming inability to write female characters. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat only seems to serve one purpose in the film – to be beaten and threatened by Branagh’s almost cartoonishly over-zealous villain, Sator. This narrative choice isn’t even necessary, as the audience already has enough reason to root against him and his universe-ending plot. Her dialogue is stilted and under-written, although Debicki really does give a great performance despite all that.

That is true for all the actors in the film – Pattinson is as charming as ever, and Washington overcomes some odd character inconsistencies through his sheer charisma and presence alone. He perhaps doesn’t quite reach the heights he achieved in Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, but this film only further proves that he can headline huge blockbusters. As I mentioned above, while his character comes across as almost cartoonishly evil at times, Branagh relishes the performance, and he was fun to watch when you could actually understand what he was saying through his thick Russian accent. 

All in all, the film is thoroughly entertaining and was a great film to carry the reopening of cinemas across the country. The scale of the practical effects is something to be admired, and the spectacle and scope of it all demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. However, the lack of character development and inconsistent nature of the central mechanic make the film hard to follow at times, and so it may suffer on rewatch value.