Review | TENET – Cinema’s Grand Return?

Review | TENET – Cinema’s Grand Return?


Backwards, forwards, upside-down. Whichever way you watch Christopher Nolan’s new blockbuster, Tenet, you’ll be left wondering what happened?

Few Hollywood directors, in modern cinema, are making films that test an audience’s perception of reality quite as well as Christopher Nolan. His unique formula seamlessly blends science fiction and action into the plot of a thriller – presented with groundbreaking and often mind-bending visual effects.

But if ‘Interstellar‘ or ‘Inception’ left you unsure of a few plot points, Nolan’s latest film, ‘Tenet’, is here to say – “hold my beer”.

TENET: a belief, a creed, a principle. It’s also a palindrome which is a good starting point for explaining the principles of time travel in Christopher Nolan’s latest film.

Read from the first letter to the last or vice versa, the word will always be the same, just the direction in which your eye travelled is different. Now what if two people read the same word? One from left to right, the other from right to left. At the point they meet in the middle, to each, the other will always appear to be reading backwards. Confused yet?

Nolan’s presentation of time-travel differs to the numerous tropes we’re used to. Characters don’t jump from the present to a point in the past or the future. Rather, with the help of some industrial looking future-technology, a person can reverse their direction on the current timeline. The process is called time inversion. That person can now travel forwards, from their perspective, backwards in time. Still confused? It doesn’t get any easier.

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John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) stars as a character known only as The Protagonist. Navigating an underground landscape of espionage, his mission is unclear. Armed only with the word ‘Tenet’ and a vague understanding of inversion he must work to prevent a world ending event sent from the future to destroy the past.



Assisted by Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist must earn the trust of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) a captive wife to a violent and merciless Russian arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Sator is key to the movement of destructive arms from the future to the present.

Cleverly choreographed scenes where time is moved in two directions simultaneously are impressive. Set to a thunderous score and soundscape it’s enough to ensure the viewer isn’t bored. Just continually confused.

Hurried exposition doesn’t do enough to adequately explain the complicated mechanics of inversion. The film feels more like an exam on nuclear physics where, upon the scrolling of the end credits, the viewer must write an essay on the intricacies of a “temporal pincer movement”. Easy… I think not.

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Complicated mechanics aside, ‘Tenet’ fails on some fairly basic levels. What little character development there is, doesn’t become apparent until much later in the film. We meet Neil as a drunk, almost ambivalent recruit early in the film. By the end he’s spirited and full of fight. Because he’s travelling backwards in time through this story? Maybe? How? I don’t know… I give up.

Even the most casual of viewer will have noticed little clues dotted throughout the film. A charm hanging from a bag is seen in a moment of impending doom. But they’re blink of the eye moments and few will connect the dots after a singular viewing.

Perhaps that’s the key? To fully understand, and therefore enjoy, ‘Tenet’, it’s a film that will require multiple viewings. But if I didn’t enjoy it the first time around, why would I watch it again?

An incredible spectacle on an epic scale. But cinema’s grand return falls flat because it’s just too clever for it’s own good.

It’s terribly hard to enjoy a film that leaves you wondering what the hell happened. – 2/5


Will Harrison

About the author | Will Harrison

Founder of The Unheard Nerd. A husband and father of two girls, Will is a fan of Nerdcore Hip-Hop, a comics fiend, a podcast host and champion of independent nerd culture. | Follow will on twitter: @TheUnheardNerd