Tenet 4K UHD Blu-ray Review
Less than five minutes into Tenet, I was struck by two distinct thoughts. First, that I really miss the cinema. And second, what on earth is going on? I started to worry about that second one when the fabulous opening set-piece fell away to awful humourless Basil Exposition. But to quote Clémence Poésy’s scientist, the first of three characters tasked with the weighty business of explaining Tenet to John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist and us, the bewildered and slightly bored viewer: “Just go with it.” Even so, right up until Washington’s meeting with Michael Caine’s cameo (which somehow was enough for poster billing), the film was close to disappearing up it’s own backside, which would be fitting considering the plot. Let’s be generous, it’s a means to an end and, as first acts go, we’re still not in Rise of Skywalker realms of disaster.
“Just go with it” indeed. All becomes clear, apart from the dialogue. More on that later. First and foremost, Tenet is very much the format of a Bond. Suave agent, with a penchant for fisticuffs, investigates shenanigans by a mysterious Dr. Evil, leading to an ill-advised liaison with reluctant Mrs Evil, and a polite holiday at the villain’s expense, before everything goes tits up and the soldiers come in. Tenet is a love letter to Thunderball or one of the Dalton Bonds, for which director Christopher Nolan has recently expressed admiration.
The irony is, Bond films are narratively dreadful. Tenet has its cake and eats it, adopting ambition and a tight script - more like the stuffier and more realistic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - before going all-in for massive, globe-trotting set-pieces. The central love triangle is no such thing, it's so subtle, more like a Noir without a whiff of misogyny or sex, plus John David Washington’s agent is an asshole without acting like one or having mummy issues. He’s got the swagger, without the grandstanding for which his father is known. Robert Pattinson is perfectly pitched as the lethal partner who knows more than he’s letting on, boding well for The Batman, and Kenneth Branagh is an awesome egomaniac villain, convincing that he really does have An End It All Button. I'm not sure Branagh has ever had this much fun. Aaron Taylor-Johnson needs mentioning too as he is the third actor to ably handle plot mechanics for Washington, in his case while channelling an effectively gruff Statham vibe.
It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the ‘palindramatic’ story. It develops themes Nolan, and uncredited brother Jonathan, have been developing in their careers since Memento. Suffice to say, it will appeal to ageing sci-fi nerds like myself, and fans of the TV show Dark. It’s amusing that a certain old episode of Red Dwarf transpires to be an effective piss-take of a film then yet to be made. That’s fitting.
Red Dwarf was normally making fun of Star Trek and in similar fashion, the oh-so-serious pseudoscience behind Tenet is dense, almost derailing the whole thing, but as Nolan did with Interstellar, he uses it as fuel for utterly bonkers pulp silliness, posh locales and cool toys. Quite frankly, if you can't get on board with the concept, especially after the rubbish first act, this might be a Marmite film for you.
If you are invested though, the car chases and scraps are next level; we should be breathlessly discussing, “how did he do that?!”, like we did with The Matrix or even Inception. The lack of event cinema discourse this year has really scuppered goodwill for Tenet. If it weren't for that lumpy exposition, the screenplay would be a gem of efficiency and symmetry, Nolan marrying technique with premise, as he has always done. Tenet contrives an excellent balance between visual mechanics and telling the story. It's frequently jaw dropping.
Inception, to which this is almost a sequel, had its moments of spy intrigue, but that was a heist film. This is Nolan’s Bond, his True Lies, and arguably better. More ambitious, more respectful to character and audience, if less agile. I do love Bond films, by the way, they have unique qualities, and being critic-proof is one of them. Nolan, however, answers to a higher power. History may show Tenet to be a failure, both financially and as the hero cinema thought it needed, but with the benefit of hindsight we can reconsider its legacy. Albeit in a compromised but comfortable viewing space. I really, really miss the cinema.
Rightly or wrongly, whenever I come across what might be a mistake, my first thought with filmmakers of Christopher Nolan’s stature is to ask if it is by design. We’ve been here before with the Bane voice controversy in Rise of The Dark Knight, but I’m convinced that suited the character.
There’s an early scene on train tracks in Tenet, which is very powerful and tense, with the rattling stock making you feel like you’re right there. I forgave the fact I couldn’t hear what they were saying. There is one moment later where a character is purposely drowned out by environmental sounds, a nod to North by Northwest, but the gag fails because you’re already straining to hear everyone else speak. You’ll probably be using subtitles and it’s rarely defensible. “[Indistinct Chatter]” indeed; you’ll be forgiven for thinking it applies to the film in general.
There is a fascinating design to the True HD audio track. Environmental sounds are effective, bullets and debris shatter around the room. It's fantastic. As usual in a Nolan film the score (this time by Ludwig Göransson, following Hans Zimmer's lead) is prominent, very clever - especially in scenes where the pace literally changes within a moment - and obtrusive, which may or may not offend. It’s just dialogue that’s an inconsistent mess. It sits far too low in the mix.
Tenet follows Dunkirk’s heavily contrasted palette, as photographed by Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked with Nolan since Interstellar (as well Spectre and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), so he's well versed in the genre and it frequently defaults to a rainy day in June. It’s gorgeous. It feels real, bright and fresh.
As with audio, I sometimes see criticism of Nolan films for lack of detail in faces, but soft-focus is clearly a focal-length choice, enabling the image overall to be balanced, sharp and rich, with deep blacks. The wide shots the director loves are full of details that ping; note the bright yellow ships churning through the dark sea water, with clouds gathering on the horizon.
The finale, a battle in the desert, is demo-quality UHD with debris and smoke swirling. And when you understand the story, such detail is very gratifying. There is one last scene in the desert, with three characters just talking and the balance, with ash still dancing around them, is strikingly well composed.
There's a good chunk of making of features, nicely structured around the production and the concept. Usually these short features are just on-brand extended trailers and there's certainly sense of some plodding, but these are worth a dig. Still, a decent commentary or a concentrated feature would have been welcome.
Looking at the World in a New Way: The Making of Tenet
I. THE PRINCIPLE OF BELIEF
II. MOBILIZING THE TROUPE
III. THE APPROACH
IV. THE PROVING WINDOW
V. THE ROADMAP
VI. ENTROPY IN ACTION
VII. TRAVERSING THE GLOBE
VIII. HOW BIG A PLANE?
IX. THE DRESS CODE
X. CONSTRUCTING THE TWILIGHT WORLD
XI. THE FINAL BATTLE
XIII. DOESN'T US BEING HERE NOW MEAN IT NEVER HAPPENED?
Tenet is available to buy now on DVD, Blu-ray, Digital and 4K UHD Blu-ray.