Review: Tenet has plenty of big ideas, but can't quite pull them all together

At the movies: John David Washington charmingly portrays The Protagonist in Tenet, in cinemas now. Photo: Supplied.
At the movies: John David Washington charmingly portrays The Protagonist in Tenet, in cinemas now. Photo: Supplied.

Coming off of 2017 war-thriller Dunkirk, acclaimed producer-writer-director Christopher Nolan returns to the realm of science fiction with Tenet.

Tenet follows a CIA agent, referred to as The Protagonist (John David Washington), on a mission to rescue an asset and salvage a device during a siege in Ukraine.

The mission goes awry, before our main character wills himself into taking a cyanide pill mid-torture. Of course, he doesn't die.

Having refused to reveal the location of the asset and the device, the Protagonist is recruited into a secret organisation tasked with protecting the world.

His new mission sees him come across fellow agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) and arms trafficker Priya (Dimple Kapadia), leading him in the direction of Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Branagh).

Sator's wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), may hold the key to bringing down Sator and preventing nuclear holocaust (or something worse).

Since first hitting the scene with 2000's Memento, Nolan has made a career out of swinging for the fences and thinking outside the box.

The visionary has gone from superhero blockbusters (the Dark Knight trilogy) to twisty-turny thrillers (Inception, Insomnia, The Prestige) and sci-fi gobbledegook (Interstellar).

Whenever possible, Nolan fastidiously studies the concept of time and its impact upon us mortal beings.

The premise of Tenet deals with people and objects with 'inverted' entropy, meaning they move backwards through time.

For the first-two thirds of its 150-minute duration, Tenet primarily focuses on its alienating tone and predictable spy-thriller plot.

We follow Washington's character as he travels hurriedly from one picturesque locale to the next.

The movie largely succeeds in its first and second acts, where Nolan revels in the gargantuan action set-pieces and exposition-heavy dialogue.

Nolan should once again be applauded for his extraordinary attention to detail and commitment to in-camera visual effects.

The 'reverse bungy-jump' set-piece provides some light thrills, while the entire freeport/Boeing 747 crash sequence is a sight to behold.

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema - re-teaming with Nolan after Interstellar and Dunkirk - bathes nearly every frame in chilly blue-grey hues to the desired effect.

Subbing in for Hans Zimmer (Inception, Interstellar, the Dark Knight trilogy, Dunkirk), composer Ludwig Goransson (Creed, Black Panther) delivers a similarly thunderous, emotionally resonant score.

Nolan builds up a lot of goodwill in the first-two acts, only to completely drop the ball in the third.

Instead of breaking everything down logically, Tenet's third act becomes a mish-mash of baffling twists and turns, quick edits, and seemingly endless explosions.

It doesn't help that the movie's cacophonous sound design emphasises the score and sound effects over the intricate dialogue.

The 'time inversion' concept also quickly devolves from a unique idea into a cheap, poorly explained gimmick towards the end.

Following on from TV series Ballers and Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman, Washington makes a hard-left turn into 'serious leading man' territory here.

The result is a mixed bag, with the 36-year-old succeeding in the comedic moments but floundering in the more dramatic ones.

Pattinson, on the other hand, brings bucket-loads of charm and charisma to an otherwise underwritten part.

Debicki shines in a one-note, marginally offensive role, while Branagh cranks the heat up to 11 as the primary antagonist.

Well-established character actors Clemence Poesy, Himesh Patel, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson sadly end up falling by the wayside.

One of Nolan's regulars, Michael Caine, pops in for one amusing scene as a British intelligence officer with fingers in many pies.

There's no denying that Nolan is one of the most accomplished and intelligent filmmakers working today.

Compared to many of his previous efforts, however, Tenet is a crushing disappointment - and the very definition of style over substance.

Rating: 3/5

Tenet is now screening at Grand Cinemas Bunbury. Head to to book your tickets today.

This story Tenet: A mind-bending, frustrating experience first appeared on Bunbury Mail.