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Tenet (2020)   rating

Review: written 2020

This future world couldn’t become my past quick enough

 Tenet (2020)

A CIA operative, known only in the movie as ‘The Protagonist”, is embedded in an operation at a Kiev opera house during which he is saved by a mysterious masked soldier. The soldier is using bullets with extraordinary properties – they have negative entropy – they move backwards in time. He is given the task of tracking down their origin, a journey which leads him to a Russian arms dealer played by Kenneth Branagh and his estranged wife Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki. So starts Christopher Nolan’s most mind-bending movie yet, a unique hybrid of spy movie, sci-fi, with of course ladles of IMAX-filmed action set pieces thrown in.

Fans of Christopher Nolan (of which I am certainly one) love that he mixes blockbuster crowd pleasers with something truly brain stretchingl. From the mind-bending backwards story of Memento, to the dream within a dream which blew everyone’s mind in Inception, via the more subtle tricksiness of convergent timelines in Dunkirk, he has frequently revelled in using time to create a puzzle box of a movie. Never has that been more overt than here – your brain will have been rarely more stretched as the protagonist finds himself moving forwards in reverse, as the same character appears multiple times in the same location, and you get your head around ‘temporal pincer movements’. It’s an intricate puzzle box of a movie, that certainly makes you think there is a genius at work putting this together – and yet I felt relatively unmoved on my first viewing. I love a brain teaser – Inception is one of my favourite films – but somehow this seemed to take things just a step too far, or at least failed to take the audience along as well as Inception did. It’s no fault of John David Washington, who is compellingly watchable as the Protagonist, and Robert Pattinson is a suitably enigmatic and relaxed screen presence against Washington’s coiled spring of tension and focussed air of intention. Even Branagh is good value, even as he tears up the scenery with his stock Russian oligarch character, while Debicki is an atypical heroine whose character ranges believably from victim to master of her destiny. What’s missing is something to take us from cerebral to entertaining. In Inception (it’s simply impossible not to compare), Ellen Page was our eyes and ears, an on-screen substitute for the audience to help us get our head around things, and elsewhere there was a necessary element of dry humour to counterpoint the mindbendiness. That humour and entry point for the audience is missing here, making for a dryer less entertaining spectacle. Don’t be fooled though – even if your head has given up, there is some extraordinary spectacle to revel in, with heists from moving trucks, car chases with cars going back in time, a spectacular action set piece with two sets of soldiers, one going forward and one going backwards in time as a city is destroyed around them. It’s just more difficult to enjoy the spectacle if your head has already checked out.

It’s impossible to be ambivalent to a movie like this, and I can only imagine it is likely to be polarising. But that’s a wonderful thing – this is challenging cinema, and I would argue that the more divisive, the more I would recommend people go to the cinema to see it. Was I disappointed? Yes I was – but is it bad cinema? Certainly not – it is thought provoking and audacious - arguably just what cinema needs right now to persuade people back in those IMAX seats – a failure, or at the very least a sideways step, from a prodigious talent like Nolan is still must-see cinema.

Yes, I was disappointed and relatively unmoved – but guess what – I’ve been thinking about it ever since, and I’m definitely going to watch it again. Isn’t that its own weird kind of thumbs up..?

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