Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time. (from IMDb)
It’s been three years since we’ve seen a feature film from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan. His last outing was Dunkirk, a nontraditional approach to the war drama. He proved to be just as capable of making a non-linear approach work in the war genre as any of his other kind of mind-bending thrillers. Now, with Tenet, which is also written and directed by Nolan himself, he takes his mind-bending storytelling narrative to a whole nother level. If you took his films Memento and Inception, with a dash of Dunkirk, and threw them into a blender, you might get the vibe of Tenet. It’s a twisty, turning, rewinding sci-fi film that takes a much different spin on the spy genre.
From the start, Tenet is unexpected. It opens with the concert hall invasion that was largely previewed late last year as an exclusive IMAX sneak peek (which made for an uncomfortable viewing with our 9-year-old son who had just come along to see the new Star Wars film). It quickly takes a bleak turn with a brutal interrogation sequence that makes great use of foreground obstruction and subtle hints to inform the audience what is happening without actually showing it in gruesome detail. Out of the gate, Tenet is quite violent, but without being graphic. But then Nolan pumps the brakes as he continues to the lay down track, so to speak, to guide the audience through the story. After seeing the film, I read that Nolan wanted to emulate the James Bond world, and now knowing that, I can see those touches throughout Tenet. John David Washington plays a character only known as The Protagonist — never mentioned by name — and he carries himself a little like Daniel Craig’s Bond. He’s driven toward justice, loyal, quiet, reserved, and drawn to the damsel in distress. Still, if this were Bond, it’s Nolan’s version of Bond, and the kind that will leave you thinking about it and replaying it in your mind over and over long after the credits have rolled.
We saw the film on IMAX, which is typically the ideal viewing experience since it was largely shot on IMAX cameras, especially made for this format. However, the audio was loud and booming, which is awesome in this format, yes, but it made the dialog almost entirely indiscernible for large–and crucial–chunks of the film. We definitely were able to make out enough to be able to follow the film, but the high volumes, coupled with Ludwig Göransson’s bombastic score, made some scenes very difficult to understand. For example, the dialog in a scene where the characters go speed sailing (for lack of the actual technical term) while wearing microphones on their helmets so they can communicate with one and other over the wail of the winds was almost completely drowned out by the ambient noises. The film’s finale largely involves characters running and shouting while wearing helmets that also obscure their faces, so the audience is a bit out of luck when it comes to trying to follow who is who and what they’re yelling to each other at any given moment. All of this hindered my overall experience of a film I could see myself otherwise loving, but instead left feeling somewhat cheated out of experiencing it properly due to the sound simply being much too loud and distorted. On that note, Ludwig Göransson’s score aids the chaotic nature of the film appropriately, but sometimes gets in the way a bit. The loud, thunderous score (track “747,” for example) is awesome and perfectly adds to a given scene, while the music that plays when the film’s villain Sator (and the soundtrack’s track of the same name) is melodramatic and disturbing all at the same time (Reportedly, Nolan recorded his own breathing that Ludwig then melded into the music, with unsettling results). Musically, it’s a mixture of Hans Zimmer’s Inception, The Dark Knight and Dunkirk scores (with a Tron Legacy vibe on “Foils”), with an emphasis on Zimmer’s more dissonant approach on those soundtracks.
For the first act or so, Tenet did seem to meander a bit. For a movie that touted messing with how time is perceived, it seemed to have very little to do with that. For a 2-and-a-half-hour-long film, the beginning feels a bit choppy and abbreviated. But Nolan takes his time setting up the story, world-building for The Protagonist, helping you feel for Elizabeth Debicki’s victimized Kat, and showing us just how truly evil Kenneth Branagh’s Sator really is. Washington also seemed a bit too dry and wooden for much of the first half or so of the film, but he seems to come alive as the world of Tenet is revealed. By the time Nolan shows the audience his cards, it’s tough not to be fully on board and sucked into the world he’s built for his characters. We get to see some scenes from multiple perspectives in an exciting way, and it makes Tenet a kind of gift-that-keeps-on-giving. It’s a layered film which packs some emotional punches for good measure, making it one that delivers on multiple levels–something very few films seem to do these days. It’s a summer blockbuster with depth. I’m itching to see how multiple viewings would play out for it.
The content is very intense for much of the film, but it’s seldom graphic. As I mentioned earlier, the beginning involves a harrowing attack on a full-audience concert hall, with people being threatened at gunpoint, hit, and then gassed (I’m not sure if it’s lethal, but we see hundreds of people passing out). The following scene shows a man tied up, clearly under duress, with a bloody pair of pliers lying on a nearby table. As the interrogator continues to work on the victim, their back and a passing train in the foreground masks the brutality of the torture scene. A following scene reveals that the victim’s teeth were being pulled out. Later on in the movie, we see quite a bit of violence at the hands of the main villain, Sator. He beats a man with a gold brick, and we see blood splattered on it. Several scenes later, he punches and kicks a woman and then threatens to stomp on her head before stopping and leaving (this is also the scene where a very loud and emphasized “F” word is shouted). Even later, we see a bloody bullet hole in a glass window which we realize will be shot into someone through inversion, and later see a different character dripping a little blood on the ground. Lastly, we see a nasty scar / healing wound on a person’s side, and a person is shot in the chest without a shirt on and we see a small bloody bullet hole on their skin (They’re then pushed off the side of a boat and the body hits its head on a railing, making a cracking sound, before it hits the water — it’s pretty rough). The film is infrequently graphic, but Nolan has been able to get the severity of his point across well without necessarily showing graphic detail. For profanity, there is the aforementioned “F” word, about 4 uses of the “S” word, 4 of “h*ll,” 1 “J-sus Chr-st,” 2 “J-sus,” 1 “g-dd-mn,” and a couple other words. But for such a long movie, language is mercifully infrequent. As for sexual content, there isn’t any, although some mild references are made. Sator asks The Protagonist if he’s had sex with his wife yet, to which he replies somewhat sarcastically, “No… not yet.” Sator then threatens him by suggesting he may have his men take him out back, cut his “balls” off and shove them down his throat.
Although my first viewing experience for Tenet wasn’t the strongest it could have been, I still enjoyed the film and was wowed, yet again, by the work of Christopher Nolan. The content is heavy and appropriately PG-13, so parents beware, but for those who find the usual R-rated fare a bit too much for them (like this reviewer), Tenet is a cut above what one would expect from a PG-13 summer blockbuster and another great Nolan puzzler to enjoy. After my first viewing, I think I’ll sit at a 4 out of 5, but I can imagine that repeat viewings will only improve my enjoyment of the film going forward.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 9/7/20)
4K UHD / Blu-Ray Special Features Review
The 4K UHD combo pack of Tenet includes the feature film in stunning 4K UHD, the standard Blu-Ray disc, a Special Features Blu-Ray disc and a digital copy.
Tenet in 4K UHD – The 4K picture for Tenet is beautiful. Much of the film was shot with IMAX cameras, so there’s a higher definition and clarity especially in those scenes. The movie, like when seen on IMAX, does change aspect ratio many times while you’re watching the movie, but it’s never distracting. I always appreciate the full screen 16×9 picture on a home TV, and Tenet delivers.
Seeing it in 4K at home was only my second time viewing the movie since seeing it first on IMAX in September. I loved it more the second time. When you have an idea of what the story is going in the second time, it’s a different experience. Christopher Nolan’s films often have a puzzle feel to them, so I find it fun to see how things fit together and play out along the way. Now, the audio was really hard to hear in the IMAX theater when my wife and I first saw it. From the guys often wearing masks or Ludwig’s awesome-but-LOUD score, or dialog being shouted over the sound of roaring waves, it can be really hard to hear the film’s dialog at times. I’m not a fan of watching movies with subtitles, but in our second viewing, we opted for putting the subtitles on. I hate to say it, but this movie almost requires them. They’re frequently using names of people and places that aren’t super familiar, and so the exposition that should be clearing things up can really be tough to decipher. The subtitles help a great deal with that. Granted, the making-of feature on the bonus disc reveals that the crew had a VERY hard time keeping track of the complexities of Nolan’s script, so it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that this movie ends up playing out in such a tough-to-follow manner. Now, that doesn’t bug me too much as a viewer because this movie is just really fun to watch and fun to try to figure out and talk about. Not every viewer is going to feel that way, though, and I totally understand that. I’d be tempted to bump the movie up to a 4.5 star rating here, but the fact that the audio poses that much of a hindrance to the film’s comprehension, I have to penalize it for that. With that said, though, I’m still a fan of this movie.
Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of Tenet (1:15:22) – This 13-chapter making-of feature is the only real extra in this set, but it is a pretty extensive one. It’s viewable as one 75-minute documentary or broken up into any of its individual chapters. Christopher Nolan talks about how the movie came together and how, after making the much more condensed Dunkirk – which mainly involved one location, he wanted to go worldwide with this production. He said he always loved spy movies, especially the Bond films, and really wanted to do a spy film. John David Washington shares about how his audition went for role of The Protagonist and we learn that he was the first person they cast before anyone else. Nolan stresses again how much he likes to try to build actual sets and do the action “for real” as much as he can, and rely as little as possible on CGI. The crew is pretty candid here about how challenging they found it to be to try to keep track of the story while also figuring out the forwards and backwards movement of things. They talk about shooting things moving backwards (like people walking backwards and even speaking backwards) and with IMAX cameras (and how they even used handheld IMAX cameras, steady cams, aerial views, and more). We see some great behind-the-scenes footage of the actors working out stunts and fight choreography, and then Nolan talks about shooting on location – including at the wind farm in Denmark (which he’d used in Dunkirk but regretfully had to remove the windmills in post production for that movie). The featurette also covers the crashing of a real 747 (which we get to see the full, raw footage for), building the underground caves, and the Eagle Mountain battle (which took 3 weeks to do!). It all wraps up with members of the cast and crew reflecting on the production and how challenging but rewarding it was. If you liked the movie, definitely check out this feature! It’s really interesting.
Trailers – The only other extras on here are three theatrical trailers and the first teaser, which had included footage I don’t think was in the finished film.
– John DiBiase, (reviewed: 12/13/20)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: Kat wears a bikini in several scenes; When The Protagonist is patted down by security, he reacts to where the hands go (we don’t see it) and says “Hey! Usually we’d have dinner first!” (or something like that); Sator asks the Protagonist, “Did you have sex with my wife?” to which he smiles and replies “No… not yet.” Sator then threatens to have his men cut his “balls” off and make him swallow them.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 “F” word, 6 “S” words, 4 “h*ll,” 2 “g*dd*mn,” 1 “my G-d,” 1 “J-sus Chr-st,” 3 “J-sus,” 2 “b*tch,” 3 “b*lls,” 1 “p*ssing”
Alcohol/Drugs: Some characters have drinks during the film, especially Sator who frequently helps himself to drinks. (SPOILER: A man takes a cyanide pill to end his life but finds out later, when he wakes up, that it was fake.)
Blood/Gore: We see a pair of bloody pliers lying on a table (they were used to pull out a man’s teeth). Some blood / spit drips from the victim’s mouth. His eye is also red/discolored; We see a small bloody spot on a man’s bare chest after he’s been shot; We see blood on a gold bar after the villain uses it to beat a man; A man who’s been shot drips some blood on the ground; A woman pulls up her shirt to reveal a big scar/wound on her side where she’d been shot; We see a bullet hole in a glass window with the center looking red and slightly bloody; Volkov has some blood on his clothed arm; We see blood splattered inside a dead person’s mask. We then see the body reverse and rise up to meet a gun as it is shot in the face (in the mask).
Violence: Some spoilers ahead: Armed soldiers enter a live concert in a concert hall and open fire. We briefly see them pointing guns at people and hitting some with their guns, roughing a few of them up. They then gas the audience, causing them to pass out. One of the masked gunmen is the Protagonist infiltrating the group and he is almost shot by an inverted bullet. We see the windows of the building blow out in an explosion; We see The Protagonist tied to a chair and looking like he’s already endured some torture. We see bloody pliers lying on a nearby table. Another victim is pushed over in their chair, presumably to die. The interrogator leans over The Protagonist, blocking our view of what he’s doing, and we see a distant shot of him doing something to him as a train passes in front of our view. We get glimpses between the train cars of the interrogator’s arm moving (obviously using the pliers). We then see The Protagonist’s face again, with spit dripping out of his closed mouth. The other victim holds out a cyanide pill for The Protagonist to take, so he dives in his chair for it and takes the capsule in his mouth. He passes out and wakes up some time later in a hospital. We hear his teeth had been pulled out by the interrogator and that his employers had “reconstructed” his mouth; A man holds a gun to another man’s head as he asks for information; Sator threatens The Protagonist that he’d have his men cut off his “balls” and stuffed down his throat; We see Sator hitting a man repeatedly with a gold brick, possibly killing him, with blood all over the brick; The Protagonist is hit repeatedly; Kat unhooks Sator’s sailing harness and he falls into the water. A man jumps to his aid and saves him; Sator takes off his belt and puts what looks like a cufflink into one of the holes and wraps it around his hand. She throws something at him, but he moves out of the way. He advances toward Kat to abuse her, but he’s interrupted; We see some flashbacks of an argument between Kat and Sator, in which she throws a glass dish and it shatters; In a very intense scene, Sator knocks Kat to the floor and kicks and hits her. He also spits on her and raises his foot above her head to stomp on her, but then decides not to and walks away; We see bullet holes in a glass window; Air is sucked out of a room, as a man flees so he doesn’t suffocate; A 747 plane crashes through an airplane hangar and catches fire; Two men fight and struggle over a gun. We see the bullet holes in the glass window invert back into the gun. The fight continues down a hallway as they struggle over a gun. One of them is shot in the arm. It ends when a man is sucked out of a loading bay dock doorway; There’s a prolonged car chase sequence where a car careens out of control with no driver and a victim in the back. Someone in another car tries to jump into that car to stop it before impact; Sator threatens to shoot a woman in the head as a man pleads for him not to. We see a bullet hole in a glass window with red blood on the bullet impact mark. The woman is then shot in the side and screams in pain. We don’t really see the wound, and there’s minimal blood. Later we see the scar / closed up wound; We see a car chasing down a highway and it crashes and flips multiple times. It then explodes and catches on fire; Other cars crash into each other; Two groups of troops attack a facility where there are lots of explosions and debris. People die, but it isn’t graphic; The Protagonist sees a dead body lying on the other side of a metal door. When his life is threatened, the body stands up in inversion and takes the bullet to the head (helmet), saving his life; We see a building collapse and then reform and then blow up in a different way; A woman shoots a man in the chest and we see a small bloody spot on their bare chest. She then pushes him off the side of a boat and he falls headfirst, hitting his head on the railing below (we hear a cracking sound) as he falls limp into the water below; A character threatens to kill a couple other characters but then lets them go; A man shoots a man off screen and then a woman off screen; and other action violence.