Main cast: John David Washington (The Protagonist), Robert Pattinson (Neil), Elizabeth Debicki (Kat), Dimple Kapadia (Priya), Kenneth Branagh (Andrei Sator), Himesh Patel (Mahir), Martin Donovan (Victor), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ives), Fiona Dourif (Wheeler), Clémence Poésy (Laura), and Michael Caine (Sir Michael Crosby)
Director: Christopher Nolan
What’s a Christopher Nolan movie without some thingamabob concept to let his fans believe that they are very, very, very smart for “getting it” after watching that movie twenty times, huh? I always said that getting them to watch the movie so many times is actually part of the plan that is clearly working as intended, but they for some reason always get angry when do that, and call me a plebeian idiot incapable of understanding the meaning of art.
Not that I am saying that Mr Nolan is a terrible writer, director, or producer—far from it. However, he has his formula, and this formula is tad too apparent in Tenet. I’ll talk about that later, let’s look at the plot first.
The Protagonist, who is never named here because that’s what true art is all about, is a CIA agent that takes part in an undercover SWAT extraction on an opera hall when things go spectacularly wrong. He ends up being captured and tortured, only to manage to swallow the CIA-approved cyanide pill to avoid spilling secrets and all. It turns out that the cyanide pill is a fake. When he comes to, he learns that he is the sole survivor of the operation. His superior Victor commends him for his sacrifice, claiming that he has passed some kind of test and is now recruited to some secret organization revolving around a tenet called, well, Tenet.
Our hero soon learns that Tenet has discovered the existence of some kind of travel, to put it in simple terms. What happens is that some party from the future has clearly created some device to send people back in time, as the researchers of Tenet have found the existence of “inverted” bullets and such in the present. The researcher Laura, who serves as the exposition plot device to both the Protagonist and the viewer, shows that, with some degree of instinctive manipulation, they can even create a scene that flows backward. That’s right, when you travel back in time, you basically travel in a reverse chronology order—if you are moving ahead in your course back in time, you see the actions around you happening in reverse, because for other people, they are moving in a direction that is chronologically opposite of yours. It may sound confusing here in words, but things will appear much clearer while watching the movie, because the viewer will then see how all this play out visually.
The Tenet folks in the present fear that the people from the future are waging an until-now secret war on the present, so people like the Protagonist will have to find a way to figure out how to stop the war from escalating. Tenet is basically an investigative thriller and a heist movie in all in one: the protagonist will collect clues and meet allies (Neil, the British agent assigned to help him, and Priya, an arms dealer that seems to be an ally to Tenet), enemies (arms dealer Andrei Sator, who may be working with the folks from the future), and useful pawns (Kat, Andrei’s besieged wife that is more or less a prisoner to that man). How all these pieces of the puzzle come together is, of course, basically what the movie is all about.
Let’s start with the good things first. The cast is of course excellent. John David Washington is excellent as the stoic protagonist that has a sly sense of humor and a reluctant streak of chivalry that can make things inconvenient for everyone. I hate to say this, but I am starting to become something of a fan of Robert Pattinson, as he arguably steals every scene he is in. He has good chemistry with Mr Washington, and their characters complement one another perfectly. These two men work together and banter off one another very well, so much so that I suspect that there would be quite a number of fanfiction featuring these two characters will pop up soon. Meanwhile, Kenneth Branagh plays a magnetic villain. Under any other circumstances, Andrei Sator would be a cartoon ham, but Mr Branagh makes this man look like an absolute monster whose evil traits are, terrifyingly, still recognizably human in many ways.
Now, the not-so-good: Kat. Oh, Elizabeth Debicki does a great job with what she is given, but I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Christopher Nolan tends to create terrible lead female characters. They all tend to be overemotional and, in some cases, put everything in severe jeopardy in order to force the brave strong men around them to come clean up their mess (ahem), and infuriatingly, they never have to face the repercussions of their actions because the men around them would put on this patronizing “Dear, dear! You can’t help yourself, we know!” air, with the “Because you are a woman!” sentiment all but unsaid. Well, meet Kat. In many ways, she is one of the better written female characters by Mr Nolan in recent years, in the sense that she only goes super stupid oh, maybe twice, in this movie, compared to all the time, but her entire existence in this movie is to be a plot device that either forces the men around her to painfully bend over backwards to save her or, to the Protagonist, be the rather insulting “I’m a woman and hence I awaken his softer side, so that the audience will still find ways to relate to him!” plot device. No, there isn’t an overt romance between him and Kat, by the way. This movie isn’t about love and romance, and one can argue that the bromance is far stronger than anything one may infer to be happening between Kat and the Protagonist.
Finally, the not good stuff, or what may be considered such: Tenet is easily the most formulaic movie to date from Christopher Nolan. Oh, I am not talking about the general formula of blockbuster movies. What I am saying instead is that folks that have watched enough of Mr Nolan’s movies would soon detect a rather obvious pattern to his characters and story lines, even the way the man structures his “twists”. Here, the main characters vaguely feel like they could have been re-skins of characters from Mr Nolan’s previous movies, and I have seen enough of Mr Nolan’s movies to correctly guess early nearly every one of the twists that are eventually thrown at me. Indeed, this is easily the most predictable movie from him where I am concerned, and I am never wowed by the revelations thrown at me later in the movie. After all, I know they are coming and I have correctly deduced early on what they are. It’s like playing a card game with the same person over many, many rounds—after a while, I more or less understand how his mind works.
I also feel that sometimes this movie tends to explain things a little too much when it’s not necessary to go that far. Not to spoil anything, but that final scene between the Protagonist and Neil could have been made more powerful, in my opinion, if it had been just a knowing look and perhaps a simple exchange of one or two lines. That’s it. But no, the movie instead has the two men launch into dialogues to explain the scene and, hence, dilute the impact of that moment.
Still, Tenet is a very enjoyable movie to me, although this time it’s mostly on the strength of the cast’s performance rather than the script. The movie is well made, some scenes are beautifully shot, and Christopher Nolan’s movies tend to work best when he isn’t trying too hard to be too clever with the plot. The simplicity and even the formulaic nature of the script of this one allows a stronger focus on the performance of the cast, and boy, do they deliver. I end up caring far more for the main characters, even Kat, than the plot itself!