Note: The writer of this review watched Tenet in a sparsely attended press screening with intensive social-distancing precautions. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here is an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
Tenet is the movie Christopher Nolan’s critics have been accusing him of making all along. It’s a shiny clockwork contraption with a hollow center: a convoluted Rubik’s Cube blockbuster that, once solved, reveals little more than the complexity of its own design. Since transitioning into a career of Hollywood hit-making almost two decades ago, Nolan has aimed to send both pulses and minds racing; even his Batman films brim with big ideas. Part of the fun of a Nolan movie is keeping pace with its byzantine plot and wrapping your head around its conceptual gimmickry. But with Tenet, which opened in international markets last week and is now tempting American audiences into the petri dish of enclosed auditoriums (or, more safely, drive-in lots), the writer-director has lost his way in the maze of his imagination. He might lose audiences there, too; rarely is a film of this budget and scope so proudly difficult to follow.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Nolan would one day tackle the brain-bending anti-logic of time travel. Most of his films play with chronology in one way or another: shuffling it, running it backwards, expanding and contracting it like an accordion. In Tenet, the manipulation of time is baked right into the labyrinthine story, which hinges on the concept of “inversion”—the ability, as the film hastily half-clarifies, to reverse the temporal movement of objects, essentially rewinding their path through space and time. Early into the movie, a well-dressed man steps up to a shooting gallery and, to his surprisingly mild surprise, “catches” the bullet embedded on the other end, casually flipping the relationship between cause and effect. “Don’t try to understand it,” a scientist tells him. “Just feel it.” Sage advice, perhaps, for the viewer, though also a tad ironic coming from a film whose whole point is the intricacy of its architecture.
The well-dressed man is The Protagonist, a CIA agent played by BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington. Biting on a cyanide capsule after an undercover mission goes wrong, he wakes to discover that he’s not dead but drafted into a secret organization intent on “saving the world from what might have been.” The other characters in Tenet never really stop explaining the plot of Tenet to him. Nolan the screenwriter, working without his brother and frequent collaborator Jonathan, hands them pages upon pages of exposition: rules to reiterate, questions to proactively address, paradoxes to acknowledge but not resolve. Curiously, Nolan the director often muffles those explanations, continuing his counterintuitive tact of having actors deliver important dialogue through thick masks or under the deafening roar of explosions. (If one is looking for further reason to not see Tenet on the big screen this week and just hold out for home release, consider the eventual capacity to make like the characters and press rewind—or, better still, switch on the closed captioning.)
Charged with tracing the origins of the inverted ammo, The Protagonist makes contact with a dapper fellow agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson, as ornamental here as the expensive suits he wears). The pair’s operation leads, eventually, to the Russian oligarch Andrei Sator, played via loud and dastardly accent by Kenneth Branagh—and to the best window of access to him, his glamorous, desperate wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Nolan, an avowed 007 fan, luxuriates in the surface pleasures of his material: impeccable fashions, tall buildings, tall women, sleek cars, cool gadgets, swanky restaurants with kitchens perfect for knocking around goons, lots and lots of boats. The film opens just like a Bond movie, with an in media res action sequence—a swarm of black-clad SWAT operatives, scurrying like ants into a Kiev opera house under siege. Propelled by the angry insect-buzz synth and Dolby rumble of Ludwig Göransson’s score, it’s fresh proof that Nolan knows how to spend a generous studio allowance.
Tenet doesn’t skimp on the spectacle: A jetliner blasts across a hangar like an oversized battering ram, a wrecked car flips backwards out of rest and into motion during a highway chase, etc. Once a little out of his depth staging action for a giant canvas (call it the learning curve of moving from seedy neo-noir motels to the skyscrapers of Gotham), Nolan has evolved over the years into a confident conductor of IMAX-scaled mayhem. And yet, there’s a play-the-hits quality to the movie and its set pieces—the disconcerting sense that this crowd-pleasing craftsman is at best reliving past glories, at worst composing a look book of his techniques and branded chrome-blue cosmetic fetishes. When Washington’s super spy tussles with a masked opponent who moves, like those inverted bullets, in spooky reverse, it’s a faint echo of the zero-gravity hallway showdowns of Inception, with the laws of time instead of the laws of physics subverted. If anyone’s moving backwards here, it’s Nolan.
He’s found, at least, a new model of secret agent cool. Washington plays his nameless hero as both suave and relatably green, feeling his way through a “twilight world” of science-fiction espionage, rolling with punches both literal and less so. (It’s a role not so far removed from Ron Stallworth, who was something of a spy himself, in his less globe-trotting way.) Still, as his archetypal moniker suggests, The Protagonist isn’t much of a character; taking everything in stride and lacking the obsessions and traumas that define many of Nolan’s more compelling men of action, he’s just the primary moving gear in a story that reduces almost everyone to machine parts. Only Debicki, as a woman trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage to a supervillain, is granted a recognizable human stake in this exercise in style and high concept.
The real star, of course, is Nolan’s twisty and often downright confusing ouroboros of a narrative. This is one of those time-travel yarns, in the grand tradition of Robert Heinlein or James Cameron, that doubles back on itself to fill in holes and solve mysteries. There can be a buzzy pleasure to that kind of closed-loop cleverness—it’s a variation, in some sense, on the way Nolan rearranged the chapters of his magnificent dueling-magician drama The Prestige to dazzle us with revelations. Yet as magic tricks go, Tenet could use more misdirection: Since there’s nothing here but gleaming surfaces and the machinations of the overcomplicated plot, one can quickly guess the general shape of Nolan’s palindromic structure, even as actually grasping what’s going on from scene to scene becomes an exercise in futility. (Talk about a paradox!)
In its final stretch, Tenet begins to flirt with incomprehensibility. The last act, in which soldiers race forward and backward in time to acquire an algorithm that’s just a glorified MacGuffin, finds Nolan going as far as color-coding his armored extras, just so we can theoretically tell at a glance which are normal and which are inverted. You must, at least, admire the chutzpah: Is there another filmmaker alive who could secure this much money to make something this baffling? Until now, audiences have risen to the challenge set by his uncommonly heady popcorn entertainment, making enormous hits out of the knotty, nesting-doll calculus of Inception and Dunkirk. One has to wonder, though, if Nolan has finally built a bridge too far—not just because he’s unfurled a story of stubborn, almost sadistic inscrutability, but because he’s offered no greater payoff to the mental labor required than the satisfaction of having strenuously made sense of it. Tenet, in the end, doesn’t have much on its mind beyond blowing ours. And once you’ve figured out how it works, it just sits there, like a Rolex ticking endlessly away on the nightstand.