While this article won’t be as in-depth as my usual review-caps, basic spoiler warning here – if you’d rather go into your first viewing of Tenet cold, stop reading now.
Nobody messes with time like Christopher Nolan. For a long time, it was James Cameron who held the title of time travel story genius with his Terminator flicks. Then Nolan came along with Memento (2000) and showed us all that Cameron’s paradoxical idea regarding the conception of the future leader of the free world wasn’t even scratching the surface of confusing. With Tenet, his latest, way-too-long-awaited story (thanks a lot, COVID), Nolan shows us just how confusing confusing can get – and man, is it impressive.
Now normally, my style of reviewing flicks involves laying out a recap of everything that happened. But with Tenet (or anything of Nolan’s, really) that just won’t work, for a couple of reasons. One, I still don’t understand a lot of what I saw in the flick or how or why it was happening. And two, even if I did, I would have to type out a dissertation-length article, one that still wouldn’t make sense, so it’s just not worth it.
What I can give you are the basic basics. Everything starts with an attack on an opera house in the Ukraine, where a CIA operative (I’m assuming, they never say for sure) known only by the totally meta name of The Protagonist (John David Washington) has been tasked with retrieving some kind of valuable package. But CIA aren’t the only ones after the package – some other unidentified group shows up to fight the CIA team, and the whole thing goes sideways. Protag (I’ll call him for short) ends up getting captured by whoever those other people are, and rather than talk, he makes the ultimate sacrifice and bites down on the cyanide capsule all agents get as a last resort option.
But instead of dying a horrible death, Protag wakes up on a ship where he meets some unnamed higher-up (Martin Donovan). Turns out the cyanide was a fake. As a reward (I guess) for his willingness to go all the way, higher-up recruits/promotes Protag into a super-secret group called Tenet. Their goal: to stop World War III. But it’s not the kind of war we traditionally think of, with the US and Russia lobbing nukes at each other. Nope – this war is fought over an incredible technology that hasn’t even been invented yet.
Much like a Bond flick, Protag then goes to their version of Q, a scientist (Clémence Poésy) who shows Protag the future tech called “inversion.” Very basically, inversion radiation (as the future people call it) allows for objects and people to reverse entropy and move in the opposite direction in time. The example they use are two bullets – when stationary, both bullets seem identical. But when an inverted bullet is fired, instead of leaving the gun and hitting the target, the bullet removes the impact and returns to the gun.
I know, right? And it looks as cool as it sounds. But Protag just takes it in stride with a subdued “whoa,” and it’s on to his first job – finding out who’s got the tech on the enemy’s side. With the help of fellow agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) – and after a really cool bungee stunt sequence – Protag finds an arms dealer in India (Dimple Kapadia) who points him toward the real big bad, Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). He’s the guy the future people are working with in the present, and he’s been working for them for decades, assembling the scattered parts of a doomsday weapon that the future people have sent back. The weapon uses inversion to reverse the entropy of the entire planet – in other words, when activated, it’s like a matter/antimatter reaction and Earth go boom. Very bad.
So in order to get in with Sator, Protag recruits Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) – who’s more like Sator’s prisoner than his spouse. She’s been wanting to divorce the abusive jerk for some time, but the only way he’ll let her go is if she agrees to never see their young son again. And since that’s not happening, she’s stuck. But working with Protag gives her a chance to get out from under him, so she reluctantly agrees.
Then Protag and Neil team up with a military liaison named Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to help them prevent the detonation of the doomsday weapon, which Sator has linked to his Fitbit. Seriously. His grand, evil plan is to set the device off when he commits suicide on his mega-yacht off the Amalfi coast. Ah, rich people problems. Anyway, once his heartbeat stops, the device goes off and Earth go boom. Very bad. So with Kat’s help, the good guys keep the device from going off and Kat keeps Sator alive until they get a hold of it. Well, sort of. I think. Oh, never mind.
So that’s very basically it. Now there’s a lot going on in this flick, but it’s all in service to the story and to show off the inversion tech, which is super cool. There’s this whole scene where a taxiing plane dumps a load of gold bars out of its butt and crashes into a building… and then later, un-crashes. There are inverted car chases, inverted explosions, inverted shootings and inverted fight choreography – all done by people dressed in impeccable suits (including Kat, who looks like she just walked out of a Hitchcock flick).
And as with all time travel stories, there are the inevitable ironies – we find out that Protag was fighting with his future/past/whatever self in that one scene, and he was also saved from being shot by a future/past/whatever Neil in the opera house. And a woman Kat thought Sator was cheating with was actually her future/past/whatever self.
But of course, the only question that matters is this: is Tenet any good? I’d say for the most part, yes, it is. Every penny of the flick’s $200+ million budget is up on the screen, and it is gorgeous. Not to mention groundbreaking. I mean, really, the inversion effects are the most ingenious thing since The Matrix. But the flick does have its problems, aside from its obvious density. The characters, while solidly played, aren’t developed at all. They are what they are and they stay that way throughout, because there’s no time – forward or backward – for anything else.
And then there’s Nolan’s tendency to give all his characters this ultra-coolness that borders on icy – which can make it difficult to feel much in the way of empathy for any of them. The only strong feelings you’ll have, aside from being generally confused and maybe charmed by Pattinson’s easygoing Neil, is the desire to watch Branagh’s Sator and his cheesy accent bite the big one along with his stupid Fitbit. Nothing personal against Branagh, but I do wonder why Nolan didn’t just hire a Russian guy to play – well, a Russian guy. But that’s a relatively small issue in a flick where there’s so much else to think about.
One other thing that’s interesting with Tenet is its clear similarity to Nolan’s Inception (2010). One might even theorize (and I think lots of people already have) that their universes are connected. I mean, everybody is incredibly cool and well-dressed. But where Tenet shies away from developing its main character and getting too emotional, Inception is arguably all about its main character, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom, the arc that he follows and the emotions he experiences – as well as the stunning visuals. So in that way, I think Tenet falls a little short of being the whole package that Inception was.
There’s a line of dialogue in Tenet that says: “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it” – words that serve not only as advice for the Protag, but for the audience as well. While there are a lot of folks out there who enjoy dissecting every little detail of Nolan’s movies (I found several excellent articles like this one), the best way to enjoy Tenet is by not trying to understand the how, what or why of it all. Because trust me, the more you try to explain what happens, the deeper you’ll sink into a black hole of frustration. So just grab your popcorn, sit down in a darkened theater (yes, see it in the theater – just stay six feet away from everybody else), and watch the spectacle play out. One that Nolan’s designed just for us.
Written and directed by: Christopher Nolan
Release Date: Sept. 3, 2020
Run Time: 2 hr 30 min
Distributor: Warner Brothers