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Ten years in the making, and following three release delays, Christopher Nolan’s eleventh and most ambitious project to date has finally hit cinemas. As is custom, the film’s production and marketing have been eclectically perplexing. Tenet’s trailers boast hints of Bond-esque espionage and Tarantino-style tension, not to mention its game-changing sci-fi element of entropy-inverted objects. To summate the film’s narrative in a few sentences is in vain, not only as the film is best enjoyed with minimal knowledge of its scattershot plot, but frankly, as it is far too dense to condense.
This is the film’s primary woe – beneath its layers of incredible action, performances, and cinematography, it boasts a plot which, while laudably original, is highly complex, involving a host of characters with occasionally overlapping agendas and the aforementioned time-warping central conceit which is far from easy to get your head around. That said, Nolan’s screenplay is masterfully watertight: exposition is visually depicted rather than droningly explained. Thus, despite its multifaceted nature and enigmatic structure, by its conclusion Tenet’s sense of direction is clearly manifested, prompting one to wonder how they didn’t see it coming.
However, the film also suffers from another trope which has become tethered to Nolan’s work in recent years: its puzzling sound mixing. As was the case with both Dunkirk and Interstellar, the audio layering in the film is such that several lines throughout are simply unintelligible; a bombastic score blasting through the most intense sequences, rendering several lines of dialogue lost in the fray. This is further exemplified by Nolan’s frequent placing of characters in situations in which they require facial masks or apparatus. Despite the appropriacy of this inclusion in our current climate, it is reminiscent of The Dark Knight Rises, in which a substantial portion of Bane’s dialogue is incomprehensible or unconvincingly overlayered with ADR. The extent to which these audio decisions are intentional is unclear, and while far more infrequent than in Nolan’s previous work, attempting to decipher what characters were saying in certain pivotal scenes becomes something of a chore.
This is not, however, to slight Ludwig Göransson’s dynamic score, which perfectly accompanies the film’s unrelentingly high-octane pace and tone. Visually, Tenet is a revelation. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema shoots the film with unrelenting clarity on IMAX celluloid, capturing an expansive sense of global stakes as the film leaps and bounds through several stunningly framed locations.
Furthermore, the film’s action is undoubtedly the best Nolan has to offer. Every punch, hit, and time-inversed bullet crack has an impact, and the film boasts several moments of genuinely heart-stopping ingenuity (one sequence, in particular, featuring a real 747 aircraft being crashed into a real building). The number of stunts that Nolan achieves in-camera is truly remarkable – Tenet includes only 280 VFX shots (by comparison, the last James Bond outing, Spectre, featured over 1500), thus creating a far more visceral and visually engaging sense of stakes throughout its grandiose set pieces.
However, this is hardly surprising. For the last two decades, Nolan has been pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved on screen without the use of CGI, and boldly mounting the intensity and scope of his filmography. But does the film have a heart? In short – kind of. The rapport between John David Washington and Robert Pattinson grows on you like a fine wine; initially, their pairing feels odd and mismatched, but by the end of the film their affection for one another is palpable, despite never being explicitly articulated. However, Tenet does not ruminate for too long on its character relationships – they are well-established and play intricate parts in its literal race against time, perfectly tight-roping the balance of satisfaction and leaving the audience begging for more.