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Should I Watch..? 'Tenet' (2020)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Tenet is an action spy thriller film released in 2020 and was written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan. The film follows a former CIA operative on a top secret mission to prevent a forthcoming world war by manipulating time itself. The film stars John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Michael Caine. Originally planned for a June 2020 release, the film was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic until late August when it was released simultaneously in several European countries before its US release in early September. It was the first notable cinematic release to appear in theatres during the pandemic and was released by a mostly positive response from critics, many of whom compared it favourably to Nolan's earlier film Inception. While it is too early to bring up box office numbers, expectations are high due to Nolan's reputation and the film's budget of more than $200 million - the most Nolan has ever worked with.


What's it about?

During a terrorist siege at an opera house in Ukraine, an undercover CIA agent (known throughout as the Protagonist) is part of a team to rescue a CIA spy who possesses an unknown object of great importance. However, he is startled to uncover a new type of bullet - one that apparently moves backwards in time. Having achieved his objective, the Protagonist is later captured by Ukrainian Special Forces who torture and interrogate the Protagonist but are unable to stop him taking a suicide pill to prevent him revealing any secrets.

However, the pill is a fake and the Protagonist wakes up on a boat far out at sea. Commanded by his shady boss Victor, the Protagonist is recruited into a top secret international organisation to investigate the source of objects with reversed entropy - travelling back in time having been sent by someone in the future. Alongside his British colleague Neil, the Protagonist is pointed in the direction of Indian arms dealer Priya and Russian oligarch Andrei Sator in an effort to prevent a future world war from occurring. But it quickly emerges that in order to do so, he will have to change his entire way of thinking...


What's to like?

It's difficult to know where to start with a film as mind-bending as Tenet which not only feels like a traditional action spy film with time travel elements but also an imaginative treatise on the natural of free will, destiny and morality. Viewers used to Nolan's multifaceted style of filmmaking - switches in chronology, twisting realities, impossibly complex screenplays that demand multiple viewings - will know what to expect here but this film sees him at his most experimental. Forgot seeing Paris fold over onto itself as seen in Inception because this film takes such moments and turns the madness up to eleven. Take an early scene where The Protagonist fights with a masked soldier apparently moving backwards in time, able to anticipate his every move and react to things that haven't happened yet - to us, anyway. Then, without giving too much away, another scene later on presents this moment in a new and unexpected way which makes you not just appreciate the film even more and marvel at the sheer mental effort to conceive of such a scene.

So like Inception or his earlier classic Memento, the film's premise is a winner once it finally dawns on you what's going on. Of course, Nolan isn't just some smarty-pants trying to confuse his audience although I admit that this was the most confused I've been at the pictures for some time. He is also a director with a crystal clear vision of what he wants and how to shoot it and sure enough, Tenet is an incredibly visual experience to immerse yourself in and enjoy. What I find truly amazing is that the film contains no 'green screen' effects at all - the film has numerous scenes of people running backwards amid a crowd moving forwards and even dialogue is spoken backwards to maintain the illusion. Combine such wizardry with beautiful landscapes, stunning and diverse sets and locations and a cast performing at their very peak and suddenly, Tenet becomes a strong contender of being the film of the year and possibly one of the best in the last decade.

Speaking of the cast, I was blown away by the quality of the performances despite the high calibre of the cast. Branagh emerges from behind the camera, having become more of a director these days, to put in his best performance in years as a thoroughly unlikeable baddie in the best traditions of the Bond films. Debicki and Washington are also eminently watchable but for me, the real surprise was Pattinson. Personally, I've never really rated him as an actor thanks to his soporific appearances in the Twilight series. But here, he is electric - full of charm and danger and mystique - and so perfect as a spy that personally, he becomes the new favourite to play 007 now that Daniel Craig is retiring after the forthcoming No Time To Die. Pattinson has come of age as a performer and here, he arguably outshines Washington in the lead.

The film has no 'green screen' effects which makes the film's action scenes - such as the one about to begin here - even more stunning.

The film has no 'green screen' effects which makes the film's action scenes - such as the one about to begin here - even more stunning.

Fun Facts

  • The amount of visual effects in the film is kept to a minimum. The film contains 280 shots featuring visual effects compared to 650 in The Dark Knight, 500 in Inception and only 429 in Dunkirk. Even the exploding plane crashing into an airport was filmed practically instead of using miniatures or CG.
  • Secrecy about the film's script was super-tight - Washington and Pattinson were only allowed to read it in a locked office at Warner Bros. Studios while Michael Caine - a friend and long-time collaborator of Nolan's - was only given the pages of the script that he appeared in. Caine later admitted that he hadn't a clue what the film was about.
  • The film's screenplay took Nolan about six years to finish. He also consulted professor of physics Kip Thorne - who worked with Nolan on Interstellar - to read through the script in order to help Nolan with some of the concepts which are roughly based on actual science.
  • The film is the fifth film Nolan has partially shot on and released in 70mm IMAX. About 1.6 million feet of footage was used, the most Nolan has ever filmed and possibly the most amount used for any film in history according to the director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema.
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What's not to like?

It would appear that Nolan has possibly outdone himself with Tenet which is probably his most confusing film to date. There's no doubt that exposition is kept to the barest minimum as characters deal with some heavyweight concepts in such a manner that they think it will slow the film down too much. I know I would have liked a bit more discussion on the film's themes and concepts instead of having to watch the film again to fully understand it all. When the realisation does dawn on you, the film opens up but still somehow manages to create confusion - I was certainly lost during the final big action scene which felt like your swimming tutor throwing into the Atlantic having only just taken your armbands off. It felt as if Nolan was saying "Ok, you've got it! Now deal with this!"

Tenet won't be for everybody, I get that. Not everybody can enjoy a film that positively revels in bemusing its audience - I know lots of people who prefer their films more straight-forward and less... difficult? But if you are a lover of film in all its forms, go to your nearest cinema and watch this incredible effort from probably the best filmmaker currently working. Nolan is a director who reminds me of the likes of Hitchcock or Kubrick, able to craft exquisite movies that repeatedly amaze and confound his audience without sacrificing his vision of what the film should be. It takes you on a journey, one that you might not understand but you can certainly appreciate.

Pattinson (centre) and Washington (right) lead a fantastic cast in this trippy thriller, elevating both of them into genuine contenders to be the next James Bond...

Pattinson (centre) and Washington (right) lead a fantastic cast in this trippy thriller, elevating both of them into genuine contenders to be the next James Bond...

Should I watch it?

I haven't been this excited to watch a film at the cinema for years. Without any exaggeration, Tenet is one of my favourite films going forward. It is a refinement of his previous best - Inception - and for my money, easily the best film I will see all year. Granted, the competition might not be that strong given how much the film industry has been ravaged by the global coronavirus pandemic. Which makes it all the most likely that this will be the best film I will see for a number of years to come. See it twice for the full effect and prepare to be amazed.

Great For: film connoisseurs, fans of Christopher Nolan, cinemas desperate for people to come back after lockdown

Not So Great For: the easily confused, the impatient, tiny bladders

What else should I watch?

It's telling that the only other films I can think of which remotely come close to Tenet are mostly those earlier films by Christopher Nolan. Memento laid the template by being a chronologically challenging mystery thriller featuring an amnesiac insurance investigator trying to find his wife's killer. Inception was his previous best film to date - a similarly mind-bending experience with a top notch cast featuring dreams inside of dreams inside of dreams and a spinning top that means everything. Of course, you then have his Dark Knight trilogy starting with the superb Batman Begins before blowing the box office wide open with The Dark Knight and unfairly disappointing fans with The Dark Knight Rises (which isn't as bad as people say). Even his more underwhelming films (at the box office, anyway) like The Prestige manage to grow in stature after their release.

Nolan is respected by critics and contemporaries alike, with many claiming that he is able to maintain arthouse quality with big budget, studio pleasing blockbusters. Other auteurs have to work a little bit harder - take Wes Anderson, for example who has achieved critical acclaim with films like Fantastic Mr Fox and Rushmore but only had one movie top the $100 million mark, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The Coen brothers have been making their own style of cinema since 1984 with wonderful films like Fargo and No Country For Old Men while Michel Gondry's fantastical romance Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind brought him international recognition as a director.

Branagh delivers his best performance in years, reminding us that he is a superb actor as well as a thoroughly detestable villain.

Branagh delivers his best performance in years, reminding us that he is a superb actor as well as a thoroughly detestable villain.

Main Cast


John David Washington

The Protagonist

Robert Pattinson


Elizabeth Debicki


Kenneth Branagh

Andrei Sator

Dimple Kapadia


Michael Caine

Sir Michael Crosby

Aaron Taylor-Johnson


Himesh Patel


Technical Info

DirectorChristopher Nolan


Christopher Nolan

Running Time

150 minutes

Release Date (UK)

26th August, 2020




Action, Sci-Fi, Spy, Thriller

© 2020 Benjamin Cox

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