‘Tenet’ Movie Review: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ for Time Travel

The home video release of Tenet is the first chance Showbiz Cheat Sheet had to review Christopher Nolan’s latest film. Although Tenet was the first major studio movie released when theaters reopened, at writer/director Nolan’s request, it’s perfectly entertaining at home too. It’s basically Inception for time travel instead of dreams. 

What’s it all about, ‘Tenet’?

The Protagonist (John David Washington) already leads a team to extract undercover agents who’ve been compromised. He gets recruited to investigate Tenet, a code word which leads him to inverted weapons, bullets you can activate before they’ve been fired, or vice versa. 

Tenet: John David Washington
John David Washington | Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

Inverted material has been showing up from the future. The problem is, what if they send a weapon back? So Protagonist teams up with Neil (Robert Pattinson) to investigate Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch with the connections that could access inverted material. Protagonist uses Sator’s wife, Katherine Barton (Elizabeth Debicki) to get to him.

‘Tenet’ is exciting forwards and backwards 

Tenet has really good action. Even before the inversion, Protagonist fights off Sator’s men in the kitchen using all the utensils available. Did Sator underestimate him? 

Christopher Nolan's Tenet car chase
Kenneth Branagh | Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

Once the inversions begin in full effect, a reverse fight scene is cool. Just like Inception built up the possibilities of dream levels, Tenet lays out the rules and possibilities of inverted action. Then the last hour pays it off using inversion to Protagonist’s advantage. 

For all the talk of Nolan’s complex plots, Tenet isn’t any less wieldy than Inception. Viewers will probably catch on to a lot of things before the characters do, but that doesn’t mean the movie failed. You’re supposed to be ahead of the characters at some points. These events would surprise Protagonist and Neil in a real world discovering time travel for the first time. And Neil and Protagonist probably never saw Bill & Ted or Timecop, let alone Nolan’s own Interstellar.

How did Christopher Nolan do ‘Tenet’?

The inversion is an effect that could be done without CGI. It seems like Nolan actually shot the inversions in real time and reversed the film. If so, that would mean the cast and stunt team performed massive amounts of choreography in reverse, to look like they were moving forward against inverted time. 

Christopher Nolan's Tenet
John David Washington and Rich Ceraulo Ko | Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

That might not be possible with running scenes. No way it would look like they’re running forward if they filmed it backwards, but perhaps scenes like that utilize visual effects while other scenes go old school. The sound design is inverted in those sequences too. 

Christopher Nolan’s Tenuous characters

Tenet has the same weakness Inception had which is the structure is far more interesting than the characters. That can be okay, but it feels like Nolan wants his characters to equal the plot and it’s almost cute that he still doesn’t get it. Naming the protagonist Protagonist feels especially lazy. Yeah, he would already be using code names in his line of work, but Protagonist as the lead character of a movie? Come on. Not since M. Night Shyamalan named a character Story has a writer/director been more blatant.

Tenet: Branagh and Debicki
Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh | Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.

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Sator is a fairly one-dimensional bad guy. He threatens and he’s possessive over Kat out of spite. Our bad guy isn’t any more sophisticated than an abusive spouse? And too bad Kat is little more than just the way into Sator’s crime syndicate. She hangs out in the mission long enough to get her moments, but it would have been nice if the script had more use for her. Debicki certainly milks it for all its worth. 

Tenet is also perfectly fine to watch at home. The Blu-ray expands into the full IMAX frame, and while it can’t engulf you at home, it looks good for scenes on water or riding alongside a firetruck in a car chase. Most of the film is full frame, so the ratio of widescreen shots is minimal.

After all the hubbub, Tenet is good. It doesn’t reinvent movies, but it makes a unique set of time travel rules and executes them with precision. Tenet is available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD and digital Dec. 15.