‘Tenet’ Review: Christopher Nolan’s Inverted World
Like the brain teaser about a man who travels back in time and kills his grandfather before his parents were born, Christopher Nolan movies are paradoxes. They’re enormous spectacles and intricate puzzles. They’re incredibly entertaining and sometimes hugely frustrating. Nolan’s latest movie, Tenet, is a mystery so densely constructed that audiences will spend the entire runtime trying to stay with its labyrinthine storyline — and it begins with one character telling another “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
Whether that’s Nolan offering viewers sincere instructions or simply playing with them, Tenet does not stir many feelings beyond excitement and confusion, at least not the first time through. The irony of Tenet only opening in theaters, even in the middle of a pandemic, is that it’s a movie built for streaming, impressive 70mm visuals and all. It’s filled with so many twists and teases and clues and hints that it practically demands multiple screenings, including at least one played backwards. It seems destined for a long life of home viewing — at least whenever Nolan and Warner Bros. decide to let that long life begin.
In the meantime, this plot description will be vague — partly to avoid spoilers, and partly because I could not explain everything that transpires even if the fate of the entire world rested upon it. The movie opens with an unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) taking part in a daring rescue mission in an opera house, where armed men are holding the audience hostage while they search for a MacGuffin of some kind. During the raid, the agent gets kidnapped and tortured. He tries to kill himself with a cyanide pill, and wakes up some time later on a boat. It turns out the mission was a test which he passed. Now, he is a part of an organization called Tenet.
The agent learns very little about the group beyond its name and their mission, protecting the world from a fate worse than nuclear annihilation. That fate is tied up with something the characters call “inversion,” in which objects have their entropy reversed, giving them the ability to move backwards through time. The agent’s quest to understand and protect inversion technology will send him to destinations like Mumbai, Oslo, and Russia, and into conflict with a dangerous arms dealer named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who obsesses over his beautiful wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). The only person the agent seems to trust is Neil (Robert Pattinson), the fellow spy he recruits to help him save the world.
No matter the actual villain, time is always the enemy in a Christopher Nolan film. Whether it’s Leonard’s short-term memory slipping away in Memento, or a spaceship carrying Coop away from his family, clocks only ticks ominously in Nolan’s cinematic universe. Nolan often metaphorically weaponizes time to play with viewers’ perceptions and expectations — like in Dunkirk, where three different stories play out across three time frames simultaneously. In Tenet, time is literally a weapon. Eventually, existence itself hangs in the balance of the protagonist and Neil’s actions. Leave it to Nolan to see time travel for all of its darkest and most ominous potential.
Leave it to him to also see enormous potential for unique action setpieces. Tenet contains fights, chases, and even a large-scale battle sequence that flow through time in different directions simultaneously. A man will fight another while he moves backwards, or will run through a hail of bullets that are returning to guns instead of being fired from them. The sheer complexity of these scenes make them hard to process in real time. Perhaps that is part of Nolan’s point; that if this inversion technology were real its impacts would be so complex our feeble linear brains could never hope to comprehend it all. Even at their most bewildering, the raw imagination and distinctive imagery on display are always thrilling.
Tenet’s characters are a lot less exciting. Most, like the protagonist and Neil, are barely characters at all. They have no backstories, few motivations, and less emotions. The members of Tenet are actors in a cold war so immense they barely understand why they’re fighting it. (It could be to preserve their absurdly stylish wardrobes, which are fabulous.) Kat comes the closest to becoming a fully realized person in her need to untangle herself from her toxic husband. On the other hand, her main focus is protecting a son who barely appears onscreen. He feels so abstract he could almost be a figment of her imagination, or maybe a traveler from another time. (Expect a Tenet theorist to explore these ideas at some point down the line.)
I have no doubt these people and their actions in Tenet’s time-scrambled world make perfect sense to Nolan. But do they make sense to the audience? I saw Tenet with one other person, and we spent the entire drive home asking questions of one another. “Why did this happen? What were they hoping to do here? Why didn’t they just do this instead?” In some cases, we were able to piece together things we didn’t initially catch. In others, all we could do is hazard guesses.
To be fair, both of us were amused enough by Tenet, even when it befuddled us, to want to decode these mysteries. I’d like to watch the film again to see what I missed and to find out whether there is more to Tenet beneath its dazzling surface — to try to understand it and feel it. I would probably rather have that second viewing at home though.
-If someone tried to make Primer and a James Bond movie all at once, it would be Tenet.
-Tenet needs its own version of The Shining Forwards And Backwards.
-Go ahead, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Explain the physics of this one.
Gallery — Every Christopher Nolan Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best: