Tenet ★★★½

A technically-breathtaking action spectacle. A sci-fi thought experiment realized through ingenious and understated practical effects. A spy film, a heist film, a war film, and a high-concept brain-scrambler, all while a few notable faces in suits are whisked towards another set-piece and reveal by Nolan’s breathless riptide of a plot. 

Tenet is Nolan at his most clinical. For every exposition beat delivered through visuals, there are minutes of dry explanation and set-up that lack Interstellar’s awe or Inception’s intrigue. Characters here are plot devices and bridges between more plot. John David Washington’s protagonist being unnamed and credited as “The Protagonist” is the level of humanity at which Nolan is operating. Even a domestic abuse subplot is more chess piece in play than anything approaching drama or humanity. The performances are strong but stagnant; JDW’s operative and Pattinson’s roguish ally stand out through sheer personality rather than arcs or dialogue. Considering that Dunkirk mined a great deal of humanity and empathy from its characters, while still remaining distant in its multi-tiered scope, this narrative shallowness seems like two steps back for Nolan.

However, Tenet’s corresponding step forward are its action, special effects, and realization of a wildly complex premise. Dropping us into a sprawling opera shootout packed with potential causalities, Tenet globe-trots between huge sequences with the slick confidence of a Bond film and the technical boldness of Inception. An intense kitchen fight highlights Nolan’s improved handle on filming fight choreography. A plane crashing through a building is both a stylish caper and a Herculean display of practical stuntwork. Eye-popping moments of “inversion” explode into extended sequences of forwards-backwards interplay that made this sci-fi fan grin with delight, that boggles the mind thinking about how such impossible action was accomplished. The final act was a disappointment though, its impressive inventive thrills muddled by indiscernible threats and unclear stakes.

Tenet’s sci-fi spy extravaganza doesn’t invert what we’ve come to expect from Nolan. The action is a bold commitment to technical boundary-pushing through old-school movie magic. The concepts are visually awesome in the truest sense of the word, grounded in logistics and a clinical lens. The plot begs for rewatches while bland characters and expository emphasis discourage rewatches. In its best moments, Tenet is Nolan flexing his mastery of spectacle, but the overall film is tiers below the director’s best. Not as daring and well-crafted as The Prestige or Memento, not as transcendent as The Dark Knight or Inception, lacking the empathy of Dunkirk and the drama of Interstellar.

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