Tenet review: Christopher Nolan’s spy movie is as fun as it is confusing

Tenet review: Christopher Nolan’s spy movie is as fun as it is confusing

Better luck next time

Text: Emily Heng

Things have been relatively quiet on the movie front since COVID-19 barreled in with all the destructivity of a wrecking ball. A cautious re-opening of cinemas saw the release of an eerily apropos outbreak film (Train to Busan: Peninsula); a campy, horror-infused superhero flick (The New Mutants); and yet another remake of a popular cartoon franchise (Scoob!). And while I'm sure these picks have their merits, they're far from the large-scale, Hollywood productions I've grown accustomed to seeing every few months. The movie industry has, by and large, stalled. Until Tenet entered the fray.

The time-twisting spy film is written and directed by Christopher Nolan, recognised for critically-acclaimed works in the vein of Inception and Dunkirk. As with said productions, Tenet encompasses all the characteristics typical of a Nolan piece: heart-pounding action worthy of its US$225 million budget; stalwart heroes with a penchant for brooding; and a convoluted, serpentine plot sure to invite countless hours of theorising.

What sets Tenet apart from Nolan's filmography is its fascinating take on time. Or, inversion, to be more specific. We're given a half-baked explanation of sorts from Laura, a scientist played by Harry Potter's Clémence Poésy. "It's not time-travel," she clarifies, but rather, "technology that can reverse an object's entropy".

Essentially, it is where objects move in reverse, essentially rewinding their path through space and time. A gun, when fired, doesn't pierce the wall in front of it, but rather, goes backwards and is caught by the lead. What precedes is a 007-esque storyline centering a character known only as the Protagonist, a CIA agent who has to thwart the efforts of a Russian oligarch — with the ability to communicate to the future and thus, invert time — from destroying the world as they know it.

As someone who opted for chemistry rather than physics during her (torturous) academic years, inversion made absolutely no sense to me. Neither did most of the movie, I'm afraid, as someone with attention span of a fruit fly and the inability to discern actual speech when it is delivered with a strong accent. What are the true intentions of the very villainous Andrei Sator? Is the movie really an allegory about global warming? And for the love of all things holy, how does Robert Pattinson get his hair so good? I recap all of my most pressing questions surrounding Tenet, below. Warnings: spoilers ahead.

Was Michael Caine's involvement necessary?

Let's start with some hard-hitting questions. Did we really need to see Caine as a British intelligence officer for all of five minutes, dissing the Protagonist for owning a suit from Brooks Brothers? Yes. A million times, yes.


Is Kat carrying a Birkin bag?

Yes — skip to 0.43 in the video below to get a good look. Perhaps she could have auctioned it off and used the money to hunt down the original of the forged painting she sold her heinous husband? Y'know, the one he used to blackmail her into staying with him. Just some blue sky thinking here, folks.


Why did all the important exposition have to be given when someone was wearing a mask?

Curiously enough, people have to don oxygen masks when entering an inverse timeline. Seeing as how everything is, uh, going in the opposite direction in the other realm, we suppose it makes sense? It does, however, make it difficult to understand what someone is saying when they're sporting a contraption over their pie holes. Guess I'll never know if Aaron Taylor-Johnson was telling the Protagonist to turn around, or enter the turnstile...?


Was Sator really going to cut off Protagonist's balls and suffocate him to death with 'em?

I mean, probably.


How does Robert Pattinson's hair stay in place amidst car chases, rappelling down a building, and even through a plane crash?

Is it a gel? Is it a mousse? Is it because he's Batman? I'm desperate for answers, and no one seems equipped to give them to me.