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‘Tenet’ review: Christopher Nolan movie twists time in dense thriller

Movie trailer: Tenet

Director Christopher Nolan, known for bending reality and configuring complex storylines into labyrinthine mazes for the moviegoer to navigate, keeps true to form with his latest movie, Tenet.

There’s an abundance of time “inversion” — I’ll attempt to explain that later — and riveting action scenes, gorgeous cinematography, typical dark, apocalyptic Nolanesque music, and the usual dense mystery.

Poised as the Hollywood blockbuster that’ll save cinema from the ravages of COVID-19 and get bums back in seats, Tenet is under a lot of pressure; while it possesses many “big” movie traits that audiences are seeking, as the story unfurls it gets ridiculously complex, providing insufficient payoff. Finally emerging from your home and sitting through a two-hour-30-minute movie, you expect more.

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Starring John David Washington as the Protagonist and Robert Pattinson as sideman Neil, the acting is top-tier, a definite strong point. Washington especially is magnetic, perfectly stone-faced as he tries to make his way through. Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh as the scenery-chewing baddie round out the main cast with strong performances.

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Despite the talent on display, the story they’re trying to present hinders the film.

‘Tenet’ movie release seen as litmus test for industry
‘Tenet’ movie release seen as litmus test for industry

What is the main story, then?

There probably isn’t enough space in this article to convey the whole plot without completely losing you. In a nutshell, the Protagonist is an agent for an international undercover organization, tasked with saving the world from Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Branagh), who’s using time inversion to control the outcome of certain… events.

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The story is also very dismal, very dark, full of mistrust, betrayal, questioning. Living in a pandemic and hearing the recurring phrase of the movie — “We live in a twilight world” — doesn’t exactly rouse the spirit. But then, it wouldn’t be a Nolan movie if it did, would it?

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What is time inversion?

I don’t want to get too deep here, but basically it involves going backwards or forwards in time to change the way things end up. Naturally, throughout the movie the characters go back and forth until it’s a dizzying blur of occurrences, punctuated by familiar landmarks or scenery meant to help the viewer understand what’s going on. Even the sharpest minds will be left bruised by it, and you’ll most likely leave the theatre feeling a little deflated.

Nolan fanatics will enjoy the ride, and probably revisit the film a second or third time in order to solve its more layered mysteries. The elements are all there, but like a dud bomb, the wick just fizzles out.

OK, so aside from the acting, what else is good about it?

There were certain scenes where my mouth dropped open (inside my mask), they were that beautiful. Filled with oceanside vistas and European architecture aplenty, Tenet is stunning, there’s no debating it. Starved of beaches and the ocean throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re a lovely sight. Even the scenes involving airplanes triggered a pang of longing in my stomach.

If you’re going to see Tenet regardless, spring for IMAX — it’s a feast for the eyes.

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The action scenes are just as gorgeous, choreographed to perfection. While you may not have a clue what’s flying past or what’s going backwards or forwards, they’re an invigorating rush. The mid-movie car chase is an apt centrepiece for this complex opus. It’s fun to think of the movie’s palindromic name and how the movie is constructed. I’ll leave that riddle for you to solve.

So what’s the bottom line?

Tenet will get people to the theatre, but it’s a bittersweet taste of cinema for the first time back. It has big, bold action, striking visuals and compelling actors, falling short in story and scope. Most Nolan fans will love the feeling of being immersed in it, while the average moviegoer will most likely be frustrated by it.

If you go see it, give your brain a massage before you go in, and pay full attention for best results.

‘Tenet’ is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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