Tenet — what the hell was that? (spoiler-free)

Tom Davidson
3 min readAug 27, 2020

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John David Washington stars in the main role of Tenet

Having played with time (Interstellar), chronology (The Prestige) and memory (Memento) heavily across his feature film career one gets the sense of Christopher Nolan writing the script for Tenet — something that took him five years — and rubbing his hands together gleefully thinking: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

The acclaimed British director wants his latest summer blockbuster to be the saviour of the cinema industry; the tentpole release that will get hesitant audiences back into the theatres worldwide following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whether that lofty goal is achieved remains to be seen but one thing is for certain: Tenet will require, if perhaps not reward, repeated viewings.

It features a mind-bending breakneck plot that is high on action, medium on exposition and low on characterisation.

Tenet deals with time travel — and the fate of the world

Much was made of Inception, released 10 years ago, as a ‘smart’ original blockbuster — a rare thing in a Hollywood that was then and is now consumed by sequels, adaptations and comic book films.

Well, plot-wise Tenet is Inception on acid: a $225m time-travelling mind-fuck of a movie. If critics felt that Nolan’s dream heist movie was bogged down with exposition, there is little chance of that here.

Despite being 150 minutes long there is almost no time to ponder some of the cavernous plot-holes that go hand-in-hand with any time-travel movie. One character even advises: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it”.

Chris Nolan’s capacity for convoluted story-telling knows no bounds

The fact is with Nolan’s high-concept thrillers so much time is spent explaining what exactly is going on there is little time left to develop characters and relationships with the result being the pay-off isn’t as satisfying as you want it to be.

From the beginning of Tenet the audience is thrown into the deep end following John David Washington down the rabbit hole as he, and we, try to discover just what the hell ‘Tenet’ means.

In a similar way to Inception and Dunkirk the plot, at its barest of bones, is not original in the slightest. But Nolan’s method of telling it is and there are few moments of respite for the audience to gather our thoughts and try and deduce just what the hell is going on.

A behind the scenes still from the production

Once again the spectre of James Bond films looms large, it’s got all the globe-trotting (Estonia, Oslo, Amalfi coast, Mumbai are all checked off), faceless goons and grandiose scale for it, if not the shaken, but not stirred charm.

Two of the action sequences far surpass anything served up by 007 in recent outings with John David Washington being Tenet’s Bond, ably supported by excellent turns from Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki. Michael Caine also serves up a wonderful one-scene cameo (Nolan calls him his “good luck charm”).

Tenet is far from perfect. Some of the character’s motivations feel either underwritten, underdeveloped or rushed and there is a certain level of inhumanity to it all.

The audience is told repeatedly that the future of the whole world is at stake but the film cracks along at such a pace there’s never a chance for that to sink in. Instead there’s a rather kitschy attempt at humanising the apocalyptic threat which just feels lazy.

As such emotionally it’s a bit of a step backwards from Dunkirk where, despite being nearly an hour shorter and with an ending everyone knows, more felt at stake.

Tenet is a deliberately complex film, far more so than any Nolan film yet.

Will it reward repeat viewings? I’m betting thousands can’t wait to find out — and I’m one of them.

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Tom Davidson

31-year-old journalist living in south westLondon trying my hand at some film writing as and when