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    Christopher Nolan’s Tenet Bends Time & Our Brains

    As the year comes to a close, we’re finally allowed to see the movie that, even before the pandemic hit, was set to be the must-see film of 2020 – Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. If you’re a fan of feeling confused, Nolan has gifted you with a film that will bend your brain, while also indulging in all the suspense and action you could wish for.

    Nolan’s Tenet is a mixed bag, and the reviews that have emerged since its release reflect this. The film has simultaneously been called “self-indulgent”, “grandly entertaining”, “super intriguing”, and also “his most playful” film. Regardless of the opinions, it’s clear that people have a lot to say about it, and we’re not surprised.

    Tenet is Christopher Nolan’s weakest film. It’s also evidence that Christopher Nolan’s weakest film is still way better and more exciting than some directors’ best films.

    Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat
    Christopher Nolan's tenet movie

    The film follows a secret agent, known only as “the protagonist” (played by John David Washington), as he embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III.

    In order to do this, he needs to come to terms with the fact that, unlike most films of its ilk, he doesn’t need to travel through time, but invert it.

    The plot, which essentially is moving backwards more often than not (but that’s much better demonstrated on screen than with the written word), takes us across the globe – to India, Russia, Naples, and Estonia – as the protagonist and his partner (played by Robert Pattinson) become further embroiled in a race against a notorious arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who plans to end the world using “inverted” weaponry from the future.

    As you would expect from a film about an arms race and possible WWIII, there’s action – bullets are shot, car chases are had, and, as Alex Godfrey, for Empire, writes “The blams come thick and fast. Tenet, in fact, might be Christopher Nolan’s blammiest film yet”. But it surpasses other action thrillers by including an intriguing science fiction element and of course, by seasoning it with that typical Nolan flavour.

    Nolan’s slippery use of time in the film, and even his script and the information it affords us, is at first as evasive and hard to grasp as a lone ramen noodle in a bowl of broth. It loops, twists and baffles, creating the impression that us mortal viewers may not be able to grasp whats going on at all. In a very satisfying twist of event, however, Nolan generously ties the entire film together in a neat little bow right at the very end, resulting in a sigh of relief on the viewer’s part that, at least, we aren’t quite us dumb as we thought we were.

    The structural complications of Nolan’s storytelling are nifty enough, but it’s the muscular gusto of his filmmaking that inspires wonder.


    John David Washington’s performance is enigmatic and bold, and it’s complemented well by Robert Pattinson’s. Pattinson has truly been making an effort to shed the glittery skin of Edward Cullen in his recent, very diverse, performances. His Time-Travelling-James-Bond persona in Nolan’s Tenet is a world away from his sleazy preacher performance in The Devil All The Time, which was released earlier this year, and it demonstrates an impressive amount of growth in his craft as an actor. Kenneth Branagh, too, deserves recognition for his performance, which renders him almost unrecognisable in his role as the unhinged antagonist.

    Though the film has been critised as a “mediocre espionage thriller”, devoid of feeling and lacking growth, it remains an undeniably watchable blockbuster. It’s convoluted, though not particularly complicated, use of time encourages viewers to actively use their brains – a quality which is lacking in many of the films released around the Christmas season.

    Guy Lodge, writing for Variety, adds that Tenet is “also just a movie: a big, brashly beautiful, grandiosely enjoyable one that will provide succor to audiences long-starved for escapist spectacle on this beefy, made-for-Imax scale.

    John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki in Tenet

    “This kind of escapism is much needed after a year that has, for many, been filled with trials ad hardships, and not nearly enough social contact. The film transports viewers, even those who are only watching from their living rooms, in much the same way as a trip to the cinema does. a large bowl of popcorn is highly recommended to complete the experience.

    Tenet also makes for excellent post-film discussion. And if you need a little guidance about how Nolan’s inversion plot all falls into place, here’s a handy video to help you out after you’ve watched the film (caution: watching this video before watching Tenet will absolutely spoil it).

    A concrete cornucopia of global chaos and threat, in which humanity’s survival depends on the minor matter of reshaping time and space, “Tenet” looks well suited to an anxious age.


    Early on in the film, as the protagonist tries to come to grips with time inversion, he’s advised by a cryptic scientist not to try to understand it, but to feel it. As a viewer, it’s best to keep this in mind too and not get too carried away by the mechanics of it. Nolan will bring it all around again at the very end, and the pieces will fall into place. And what more could we ask for from a 2020 film than that?

    Essential Millennial Rating: 4.5 out of 5 avocados

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