Movie Review: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Brilliantly Tries To Do Time Travel

Tenet, long awaited film from Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, The Dark Knight), officially heads to theaters this weekend to enthrall audiences with an entertaining and “trippy” story that sometimes gets tangled within itself.

Simply put, Tenet is an experience.

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Nolan’s returns to the big screen, as both writer and director, is an easily digested but difficult to comprehend film that deals with time travel-esque elements.

His 2014 film Interstellar left audiences feeling a mixture of awe and confusion while exiting the theaters, with the general consensus being that audiences either got it, pretended to get it, or just didn’t care to get it and still liked it.

As Tenet induces similar feelings, minus the dread and horror provided by the grandiose setting of space, it will be interesting to see if this movie will garner the same reactions.

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The film follows an unnamed CIA agent, played by John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman), as he is tasked with preventing a terrorist attack.

During the course of his assignment, he encounters a plot inside of a plot that involves him witnessing a variety of odd behavior, including a bullet flying in reverse and entering the barrel of the gun that fired it.

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There’s no time for the agent to ponder the events he is witnessing, as he finds himself in yet another life or death situation, which eventually leads him to join a clandestine operation run by a mysterious benefactor known only as Tenet.

Movie Review: Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' Brilliantly Tries To Do Time Travel

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Nolan has a unique film-making style that’s present throughout his productions.

Films often open with a dramatic action scene, such as the bank robbery scene seen in The Dark Knight, and his mastery of visual sequences, prominently displayed in Dunkirk, regularly leads audiences to feel like they’re in the middle of the action.

These two elements are on full display in Tenets opening scene, which drops audiences into the middle of what seems like a deadly terrorist attack and is filled with tension and energy from the pounding soundtrack provided by Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther).

Movie Review: Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet' Brilliantly Tries To Do Time Travel

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In Tenet, these heart-racing sequences are so full of equal parts drama and tension that audiences will be kept on the edge of their seats.

However, for equal measure, Nolan and his team are careful to include down beats in-between the action sequences in order to give audiences time to process the flurry of information being thrown at them and attempt to understand what they just watched.

Even with the intense visuals, Nolan still challenges himself creatively by incorporating a non-linear time travel mechanism into a difficult-to-tell narrative. The film attempts to portray non-linear time, with key portions of the story traveling backwards, but also incorporate those actions into a linear view of time’s progresision. If that sounds hard to understand, you’re not alone, as even the main characters struggle with the concept of “inversion” and are eventually told by a scientist to “just go with it”.


While John David Washington is superb in his role as the principal character, special mention should be made of his equally talented co-star, Robert Pattinson.

I mention him specifically because, in light of the excessive heat he has taken for his casting as The Batman, his performance in the role of Neil will hopefully change the minds of some of his detractors.

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As for Washington, his intensity and physical acting were impressive, as he delivers some exciting sequences that play out fantastically on the big screen.

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Character Motivations

Though Tenet is first and foremost an action film, it still needs to make sense.

Aside from the fact that the science involved gets a pass, as noted above, there’s a major character motivation that is super weak.

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The CIA agent’s relationship with Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) is a driving force for the character and is a key avenue for exploring his personality.

Kat is married to the villain, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh), though she’s more of a hostage to the marriage than a willing participant. Yet, without reason, Washington’s character develops an unreasonable motivation to protect this woman and her son.

The agent’s emotional connection to Kat is not explored enough through either screen time or back story, and the lack of a believable reason for his concern may lead some audiences to not take his desire to protect Kat seriously.

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Similarly, the driving forces behind the villain portrayed by Branagh, one of the most premier actors of our generation, are not properly detailed. To keep it simple, not enough time is spent exploring his motivations.

This exacerbates the emotional-motivational issue seen with Washington’s character, as the failure to properly flesh out both men’s characters detracts from the film’s story line.

I have a feeling this is a result of Nolan scrapping some additional character building scenes in lieu of keeping the film’s semi-fast pacing.

As is, audiences didn’t get to see the potential that Branagh could have brought to the character, and that’s a shame. 

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The Verdict

Like Nolan’s exquisite film Interstellar, Tenet features a difficult and complicated narrative that could be off-putting to some audiences, which may lead them to their rejection of the premise and the de facto rejection of the story.

However, the signature sense of wonder Nolan creates through his visuals takes you on such a exhilarating ride, that the complexities of that narrative are mostly forgiven.

Despite the weakness of key character motivations, Tenet is still highly enjoyable, with impressive performances from the cast and massive action sequences that should only be viewed on the big screen, if possible.

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