Let’s talk about Tenet.

Tenet might be the most important movie to be released in a long time. Like everything else in the world, cinemas have been shut down during the Coronavirus pandemic. And like everything else, they have started to open up. The problem has been that they have no films to show. Every big film has moved its release date far out of the reach of the Coronavirus, well at least they hope so anyway, and all the cinemas were left with were low budget movies and the classics. In order to survive after months of no revenue, they need something to get people back in the screenings. The film willing to risk losing a massive budget, because the real fact might be that people aren’t ready to risk the cinema yet, is Tenet.

This is Christopher Nolan’s latest and it’s no surprise that he is the man who has refused to budge his release date further. This is a man that adores cinema and is in many ways one of the last purists. If he had his complete way, I’d reckon that you’d only ever be able to see his movies when projected on film. No digital, no DVDs, certainly no Netflix on your phone. In many ways, he is the ideal man to try and save cinema.

The issue is that Nolan is trying to save cinema with one of his most complex and difficult to get your head around films he has ever made. That’s because the gimmick of this film is inversion. In my best attempt to sum it up, everything in the world has entropy and is moving forward in time. However, at some point in the future, a machine is made which can reverse entropy meaning objects and people can go backwards in time. This means lots of reverse stuff happens meaning you can catch a bullet in your gun rather than shooting it.

This is a very complex idea and it will give you a headache. I consider myself a pretty smart guy who can grasp this sort of thing but this just turned my head backward. When they started talking about the concept I would be doing my best to concentrate and figure it all out but so much of it just passed through without lodging itself in the old grey matter. Maybe I’m just an idiot and so it’s my fault for not being able to grasp what was going on in a lot of this film. I don’t really think the film could have done more to explain it either. It does take the time to explain the concept and it is smart in introducing it. You only see small bits of inversion to begin with and then it slowly ramps up the complexity of the concept. It’s the best way to do something as complicated as this and still take advantage of the concept it brings to you. But even so, it’s something I struggled to grasp.

But when you do get it, boy does it work. There’s an action scene where inversion is in full effect and something just clicked in my mind and it was excellent. It was like when all the dreams lined up in Inception, it was just awe-inspiring and you are reminded of how awesome the cinemas can be. Something that you may be reminded of if the last you ventured to the multiplex was to see Onward or Birds of Prey. Even though what you are seeing on screen probably makes no sense whatsoever and it is still very disconcerting, the scene is just awesome and makes the entire concept worth it. I don’t think the film ever tops that scene even with its climax which also has lots of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. That one actually ends up back in the head hurting range.

So what happens if you take out all the time inversions? Well you get the usual standard from Christopher Nolan. You get fantastic action scenes that are based in reality and use practical effects. Well as much as they can be based in reality considering the inversion stuff. As is proudly stated in a featurette promoting the film, it turns out the best way to make a plane crashing into a building look real is to actually have a plane crash into a building. The fact that is a thing which happens on-screen with no CGI in sight is staggering to me. Of course when inversion first gets involved that makes the head hurt as you try and work out how it’s all working in that concept. But when it’s the normal action, it’s just plain awesome.

Tenet will be Christopher Nolan’s most divisive film to date. Some people will get on board with the inversion concept completely. They’ll just get it instantly and love the film for all it does with the concept. They’ll probably say this is Nolan’s best. But then there will be others where the inversion is just too much for them. The concept will just not get through to them and they’ll hate it the headaches they get as their brain tries to straighten it all out. I’m glad Nolan is willing to take big risks with a huge budget on such a risky concept like this. Overall, I really like the film. But I much prefer some of his other work and I wonder if this truly can be the film to save cinema. I suppose we’ll see. Or someone has seen.

Former Head of Movies for Screen Critics. Film Reviews now hosted on Medium.