Since Christopher Nolan reinvented the comic-book adaptation with Batman Begins (2005), each of the British writer-director’s new films has been a major cinematic event. With the release of Tenet, stakes are now the highest they’ve been on and off-screen. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed the $200m espionage thriller’s release three times, and it’s the first major studio blockbuster to gain a theatrical release since cinemas closed across the world in March. Many in the industry are hoping Tenet will be the film that entices viewers back.
In Tenet, John David Washington plays a CIA agent inducted into a secret organisation and then tasked with stopping villainous Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) destroy the world. To do this, he has to gain the trust of Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debecki) and enlist uber-fixer Neil (Robert Pattinson).
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If this all sounds like standard spy-film derring-do, that’s only half the story. Sator can somehow communicate with the future and invert time, meaning our protagonist and Neil must fight to avert certain global catastrophe – forwards and backwards.
Through a mind-melting series of heists and via incredible, often baffling technical wizardry Nolan has created another must-see. It’s a winning blend of brain-scrambling cerebral philosophising and spectacular action. To get you in the mood, here are 6 films to see before – or maybe after – you delve into Tenet.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Sidney Lumet’s Cold War classic about a US bomber accidentally tasked with dropping a nuclear bomb on Moscow mostly comprises tense bunker discussions between the top echelons of worried military men, civilian Pentagon advisor Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) and the president (Henry Fonda). Walter Bernstein and Peter George’s complex, detailed script of logistics and morality under the greatest pressures is echoed in many dialogue-heavy scenes in Tenet, particularly by Robert Pattinson, whose fixer Neil is explainer-in-chief. The plot machinations of the later film are also part of a Cold War, but one along temporal rather than geographical lines.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam’s grimy, disorienting time-travel banger lacks the glam sheen of Tenet but its clever, looping structure contains clear similarities. Indeed, when convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back through time to find out what caused a viral catastrophe, the haunted confusion on his face and moments of bittersweet realisation chime with the befuddled reactions of Washington’s agent. Gilliam adapted Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short La Jetée, expanding a piece made almost entirely from still photographs into a mind-bending feature that’s arguably the director’s best work – and Willis’s too.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Paranoid number theorist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) struggles to find order in Manhattan’s Chinatown by studying the eponymous endless number. Max soon gets bogged down with helpful Hasidic Jew Lenny Meyer, malevolent Wall Street traders and a headache like no other. Darren Aronofsky’s directorial feature debut is the finest puzzler of the 90s. Much like Nolan’s film, Pi explores existing scientific theories while pushing them into the realm of fiction. It’s a true head-scratcher that beguiles but needs more than one viewing to fully comprehend.
Director: Shane Carruth
Writer-director-star Shane Carruth stunned many with his micro-budget puzzler about 2 tech entrepreneurs who accidentally invent a time machine in a garage. Easily the most confusing film on this list, former engineer Carruth uses fiscal economy and his own maths degree background and serious, specific physics knowledge to toy with his audience and shift perspective, which accomplishes with the adroitness of a shoestring Nolan. Primer is particularly good at showing how manipulating time can bring out one’s ugliest side, as we see with Tenet’s Sator.
Director: Sam Mendes
Broadly, Tenet’s outline plot about a super-spy trying to save the world from a powerful villain has been the template of all 24 released James Bond films. But it’s Skyfall – surely the very best 007 feature – that makes for the tightest comparison. Daniel Craig’s dry one-liners wouldn’t sound out of place coming from uber-cool Washington, Roger Deakins’ exquisite Skyfall cinematography is matched by that of regular Nolan collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema, and both feature major sequences in an abandoned city. The 2 films also make the most of a heightened glamour rarely seen in cinema beyond the upper reaches of blockbuster filmmaking, with top-notch tailoring, multiple exotic locations across the globe and mouth-watering action set-pieces.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Speaking of globe-trotting blockbuster franchises full of high-stakes peril and how-did-they-do-that? spectacle, fans of the sixth and greatest Mission: Impossible film to date will get a huge kick from Tenet. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) again comes up against nefarious Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), leader of a terrorist group called the Apostles. As in Tenet, convoluted heists involving the theft and recapture of plutonium to avoid global annihilation are a key part of the narrative. The threat is ever-present and time is always running out. Lane is a psychopathic narcissist, a classic villain, chilling in his savagery on a micro and macro level. Sator in Tenet is much the same, whether he’s heartlessly manipulating wife Cat (Elizabeth Debecki) over the custody of their son Max, plotting ineffable destruction or beating a man to death with a gold bar.