Tenet Review: Time Goes Backwards in Christopher Nolan’s Latest Epic

by Hunter Johnson

Again and again, Christopher Nolan has proven his singular ability to tell completely original stories, and his latest cinematic endeavor is no exception. “Tenet” is an espionage thriller that redefines the genre by bringing the concept of time to its forefront. 

Nolan’s use of time has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of both storytelling and filmmaking. His first big-budget film, “Memento,” shocked audiences by telling its story in reverse. His later films “Inception” and “Interstellar” both involved characters experiencing the flow of time differently from everyone else. Even in his more recent war film “Dunkirk,” Nolan used time as a storytelling device to show various characters experiencing the same historical event in different ways.

For “Tenet,” Nolan delves into the concept of time on a whole new level. Characters experience time moving forward and backward, sometimes simultaneously forward and backward for different characters within the same scene. It’s a mind-boggling concept that the film approaches with absolute seriousness, and it works because of Nolan’s complete devotion to his craft.

However, no director could realize such an ambitious vision without a great team behind him, including composer Ludwig Goransson (“Black Panther,” “The Mandalorian”), whose bombastic score drives the tension of “Tenet” through its fast-paced electronic music mixed with the heavy percussion that has become a trademark of Nolan’s films. 

Meanwhile, working as cinematographer is the brilliant Hoyte van Hoytema, who previously joined forces with Nolan on “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar” as well as working on the James Bond film “Spectre” and the recent space drama “Ad Astra.” Bringing this experience to the film, Hoytema frames Nolan’s hyper-realized fight sequences and enormous set pieces with finesse and polish.

When it comes to set pieces, a signature of Nolan’s visceral directorial style is his deliberate use of practical rather than digital effects: he famously blew up an actual hospital in “The Dark Knight” and used real planes to film the dogfights in “Dunkirk.” “Tenet” is no exception to this rule, with the film’s crowning action set piece involving an actual Boeing 747 crashing into a hanger.

In terms of characters, the cast delivers fantastic performances all around. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson both give solid performances as the leads, and performing alongside them are Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki, playing the husband and wife duo Andrei and Kat Sator, respectively. The two of them provide the heart and soul of the film, allowing audiences not only to enjoy the innovative action but also to invest emotionally in the story and its characters. 

Despite its strengths, “Tenet” is also one of Nolan’s most confusing films to date. Granted, that complexity is usually part of the charm of his films. “Inception,” “The Prestige,” and “Memento” are all elaborate puzzles that Nolan invites the viewers to piece together on their first watch and then to revisit for their more intricate details and exceptional craftsmanship on subsequent viewings.

However, Nolan may have gone too far this time around. “Tenet” is not an easy film to follow, and despite countless scenes of characters explaining the sophisticated plot, most viewers will probably end up lost and confused, so much so that mainstream audiences may not be willing to give the film a second shot. Time, indeed, will tell.

Regardless, Nolan deserves praise for this mind-bending story bolstered by riveting practical action sequences. For years, critics and filmmakers alike have heralded Nolan for his intense dedication to creating vibrant, engaging films, and “Tenet” only reinforces how worthy he is of that celebration.

Hunter Johnson is a Senior Theatre Performance Major and an A&E writer for Cedars. He spends his time gobbling up all the Star Wars that Disney pumps out, followed by daydreaming about his future dog Jojo, all while giving endless attention to his beautiful fiance.

1 Reply to "Tenet Review: Time Goes Backwards in Christopher Nolan’s Latest Epic"

  • comment-avatar
    Tom September 13, 2020 (10:52 pm)

    You are right about the too confusing part. And it was difficult to hear the dialog over the music and action noise.

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