2020 | rated PG-13 | starring John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branaugh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Martin Donovan | written & directed by Christopher Nolan | 2 hrs 30 mins |
After being part of a successful counter-terrorist strike against a group holding a Kiev opera house hostage, a CIA operative (John David Washington) is invited into Tenet, a secret organization fighting a war with the future. Along the way gets caught in a web between an arms dealer (Kenneth Branaugh) and the suffering wife he is blackmailing (Elizabeth Debicki).
Tenent is another brain-scrambling high-concept action-puzzle box film from Christopher Nolan. It may not be one of the auteur’s top tier films but it’s one of the most Nolan-esque, using his signature style, vivid imagination, attention to storytelling and driving pace to make what in other hands would have been a routine sci-fi spy film into a complicated nut worth probing through and cracking. It’s a combination of Nolan’s own tendency to over-complicate things, his heady ideas about time travel, quantum mechanics and entropy and his refusal to hold the audience by the hand. My thoughts on Tenet are after a first viewing of a movie that, like it’s characters, moves forward and backwards and demands subsequent viewings. It’s also Nolan’s most meta piece of work. He’s playing with story structure as much as he’s playing with time. His army of soldiers moving back and forth through time to understand an event after you know how it ends in a movie that has to be seen to the end to understand the beginning. His main character calls himself the protagonist of the story. Lord, it’s a mind-melter.
I have to wonder about how the writing process in Christopher Nolan’s fertile brain works. Does he explore a high-level physics idea and try to extrapolate all of the most inventive uses for it – or, given the indelible images he is able to create, does he come up with an impossible image (a car wrecking on a highway in reverse in Tenet, two guys fighting in a rotating hallway in Inception, a bullet going backwards into a gun in Memento) and work backward to find a sci-fi concept to make it possible? I suspect the latter.
Tenet has the same expert competence and craft of any other Nolan movie, but at heart it’s more traditional story work. Where Inception delivered a mind-heist, Tenet is a more traditional heist film, all be it with a lengthy interlude into James Bond territory. We’ve got Washington as his dapper-dressed Bond able to beat up foes with a cheese grater, the statuesque Debicki as his Bond girl and the barking Branaugh on his ocean bay yacht fortress as his villain. Branaugh and Washington even engage in a friendly yacht race. Nolan knows that a hefty portion of the audience might get tangled up in the exposition of inverted bullets so he beefs up Kat (Debicki)’s story to carry the film’s heart. Elizabeth Debicki has stolen the show in about everything she’s done from Masters of Sex to Widows, here she uses her considerable height (towering over every man in the movie) to her advantage. One of the more eye-popping scenes in the film is not Nolan’s backward VFXs but Kate tied up in the backseat of a speeding car, craning her legs over the front seat.
One thing that Nolan has always excelled at is villains. Whether it’s giving quirky life to Joker or Bane in the Batman movies to constructing movies where the antagonist is time itself (Inception, Memento, Dunkirk) he’s always shied away from a traditional tropes of the hissing, woman-slapping villain, which is exactly why Kenneth Branaugh’s hissing, woman-slapping arms dealer is such a disappointment. This guy has got no personality with a Lifetime TV movie motive.
There is also the issue of the film being so outlandishly complex – both it’s core concept and the wild directions Nolan stretches the action into – that doing the headache-inducing work of piecing together the basic goals of one of the action set pieces (and who and when everyone is) undercuts the suspense the film is trying to generate. A large mid-section of the film feels like we’re about to go on a series of video game fetch quests. Get this to get this in order to get here.
This all sounds exceedingly negative, but that’s only up against Nolan’s own sky high standards. Tenet still towers over most of your studio adventure films. It’s original, it’s a visual virtuoso, it’s a heady film that trusts (or demands) the audience to keep up with it and it is very entertaining, full of unpredictable twists and clever world-building. Nobody knows how to craft a big action sequence like Tenet’s opening opera house raid, or find real world sites and make them look like otherworldly artifacts (like a windmill farm plunging out of the ocean or an old society nuclear testing site) like Christopher Nolan. Nobody can make an original IP of this size, but Nolan because he has become the brand.
Nolan appears to be making the rules up as he’s going along to make up for not giving us exposition dumps early on. For a guy who often gets flack for his dry, humorless dialog, Tenet is also one of his most well written scripts with a few genuine laughs tucked dryly in here. There is also a core concept here that I love. The idea of something happening in the future – possibly World War 3 – looming over us whose devastation we can only imagine by a past going haywire is very effective.
I’ve danced around some of the specifics here. Tenet is best viewed by an audience armed-up to peel back it’s quantum physics-fueled, exotic-location-travelling thrill ride. Even if it’s going to take 1 or 2 more viewings to figure out what those thrills were really all about.