Premise: Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
Tenet feels like the kind of movie Christopher Nolan has been building towards from the beginning of his career – at least on a surface level. It’s easy to spot some of the elements he’s pulling from, elements that have helped to define his aesthetic as a filmmaker: you of course have the incredible mind-bending visuals like in Inception and Interstellar, the action sequences from the Batman trilogy, the third act reveal from The Prestige, the perplexing chronology of events like in Memento and Dunkirk, and the complicated romantic entanglements of The Dark Knight, to name a few. Typically when a filmmaker cribs the best of himself to be put into one film, the result is an unbridled success, but Tenet just can’t make all of its puzzle pieces into an enlightening picture.
Nolan’s staying power as a director can be attributed to his ability to make complex, unique problems easy to follow and understand. But his true brilliance is how he uses the same unique problems to explore deeper philosophies. Inception was groundbreaking not only in a visual sense, but in its way to explore grief through dreams. Interstellar used a story about space exploration as a meditation on the power of love. Memento revealed its story, one piece at a time, to give a fresh take on the “unreliable narrator” conceit.
Tenet, meanwhile, doesn’t have these grand ideas on its mind – or, if it does, it’s much harder to discern on first viewing. The plot, throughout the first two thirds or so, is actually fairly easy to digest: someone from the future has been manipulating the time-space continuum and is using this to create a cataclysmic event. John David Washington (Blackkklansman), whose character’s name is simply The Protagonist, is the CIA-agent/super-spy that has set out to uncover the mystery and save the future. Along the way, he’ll team up with Neil (Robert Pattinson), and risk it all for Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the wife of the villain and Nolan’s stock “damsel in distress” character. The end result ends up being the closest Nolan has come to a James Bond film; there’s even an early through-line about The Protagonist’s penchant for cheap suits.
Each action scene is exciting in its own way, and filmed energetically, as Nolan always does; as closely as Tenet resembles Inception, it largely doesn’t feel like Nolan is simply copying moments from the latter. The way Nolan depicts the time travel elements is jaw-dropping not only in their depiction but their execution. There’s a thrilling fight sequence in an airport that appears to have been shot entirely in reverse, and Nolan only ups the ante from there. Nolan is famously adept at favoring practical effects over CGI, and he crafts his visual effects beautifully here. The climactic battle scene involves both forwards and backwards-moving parts, and Nolan blends it all together seamlessly (you can really see where the bulk of the film’s reported $200 million budget went).
Tenet does his best to hold the audience’s hand, right down to giving the various teams their own color code, but the finale ends up twisting and shifting too many times to fully understand after one viewing. Nolan’s films always seem to benefit from a second look, and Tenet is no exception, unfortunately. Most audiences will likely see Tenet initially under less than ideal circumstances, at a drive-in theatre, but the film’s technical shortfalls can’t all be blamed on the method of viewing: Nolan’s preference for booming sound and masked dialogue never helps, especially when most of the early film consists of exposition-heavy scenes. He certainly can’t be blamed for crafting a film this way and releasing it during a global pandemic, when even a single screening isn’t guaranteed for most people right now.
Nolan’s all-star cast performs amicably, though most of the characters are too thinly written. Only Elizabeth Debicki’s character has any personal motivations besides saving the world. It’s not terribly uncommon for a film to have a nameless hero, but John David Washington’s character needs more than his ass-kicking ability to be memorable. Robert Pattinson nearly steals the show – as has been his wont to do in recent years – because he seems to be the only one to recognize the silliness of it all.
Would I be more impressed with Tenet if I hadn’t known it was written and directed by Nolan (he’s working without his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan)? Maybe the key to enjoying Tenet is to just halt our expectations for Nolan and watch some stuff blow up real good (in reverse!). There aren’t many directors today, whose surnames aren’t Scorsese or Spielberg or Tarantino, whose films are greeted with such anticipation and fanfare. Tenet’s set pieces are fun and inventive, but beyond that, we’re left with a mostly standard-issue spy thriller. Every Nolan film has its own signature image that closely encapsulates what makes each film special: a folding cityscape, a Polaroid snapshot, a beach full of soldiers, etc.. There’s undoubtedly several moving images that can neatly summarize Tenet, but the task is harder to pinpoint once the video pauses. Indeed, it’s hard to tell if something is going backwards or forwards when it’s frozen in time.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.