The first Hollywood blockbuster released during the pandemic is an SF techno-thriller, sort of James Bond meets La Jetée (or, if you prefer, 12 Monkeys. It's neither as charming as the former nor quite as intelligent as the latter, but it has much to recommend it. Writer/director Christopher Nolan remains, at least, consistently interesting.
A CIA agent, believed dead, is sent on a mission that involves agencies and forces other than the ones he knows. That mission concerns objects and people who have been temporarily reversed, apparently with tech from the future. His antagonists appear to be one step ahead of him—almost as if they knew what was going to happen next.
If you're looking for spectacular effects and a mind-bending plot, this is your movie. Christopher Nolan can direct action sequences backwards and forwards, and he choreographs this film with the perfection of the Bolshoi Ballet. The rules of the game are absurd, but the film, as far as I can tell, follows them, and that's what is required here.
Ludwig Göransson's score for the film, meanwhile, approaches sub-zero cool.
For a film like this one to succeed, it cannot just wave around the End of the World. We have been there and done that. We need to care about the people.
They're all good actors, but they lack the necessary chemistry. Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I could not help thinking what John David Washington's famous father might have done with this role (when he was younger—the part comes with age requirements). I liked JDW in BlacKkKlansman. And in this film, he convinced me he's that guy, the one who can face any danger and win any fight—all right. But the Action Hero witticisms mostly fall flat, and I only partially believed in his two most important relationships, with his clever sidekick and the villain's wife.
Michael Caine's cameo shows us what a superlative actor can do with minimal material. Kenneth Branagh, meanwhile, makes the movie's vile villain its most consistently interesting and compelling character.
Christopher Nolan hasn't made another Inception, but the fact that this time-twisting, funhouse-mirror plot holds together counts in its favour.
I saw Tenet at a local-legendary drive-in, on a double bill with Them! (1954). The theatre in question pairs recent releases with classics from the drive-in era. They even threw in a classic cartoon—Bugs Bunny!—and a contemporary one, a Cars short, and a vintage concessions ad. Kids (the second screen had more family-friendly fare) played before the show at a playground, replete with all the traditional, fun, dangerous playground equipment. Some teens in the row behind us camped out in the back of a truck, parked with its back towards the screen. It was a kick. But I digress.
Them! had a budget that was a fraction of the main feature's. It takes itself seriously, though the effects remain laughable. Despite its dated nature and the side order of cheese, the opening still made me care about the characters. I was invested in what was happening. Tenet's budget may well exceed Hollywood's entire budget from 1954, and its effects are mind-blowing. The plot is certainly more impressive. But– as in Atomic Blonde, a couple years back– I enjoyed the game, but only loosely cared about the characters.
Your response to this movie will depend very much on what you're going to the theatre to see.
John David Washington as the Protagonist
Robert Pattinson as Neil
Elizabeth Debicki as Kat
Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sato
Dimple Kapadia as Priya
Martin Donovan as Victor,
Fiona Dourif as Wheeler (Blue Team Leader)
Yuri Kolokolnikov as Scary Henchman
Himesh Patel as Mahir
Clémence Poésy as Laura
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ives
Michael Caine as Sir Michael Crosby