TENET (Movie Review)

Intriguing but not mesmerizing, Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender is a spectacle that, despite its ingenuity, lands near the bottom of his oeuvre.

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language)
Released: September 3, 2020
Runtime: 150 minutes
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy,
Michael Caine

Tenet gives us everything we go to the movies for but little of what causes them to stick with us.

Thankfully, the scale and ambition of the former make up for the absence of the latter. If Christopher Nolan ever made the equivalent of a page-turning plot-machine beach read, Tenet is it.

Setting aside the monumental double-edged burden that no film should ever be saddled with (i.e. “It’s the movie that will save theaters” and “Is it worth risking your life in the middle of a pandemic to go see?”), Tenet is exactly the kind of mind-bending spectacle of sensory assault that one would expect and want from Nolan, the writer/director of Inception, Interstellar, the Dark Knight trilogy and more.

Yet while it delivers the cinematic goods, Nolan’s latest time-shifting spectacle lacks the emotional core necessary to make us care about the story’s considerable stakes or (more importantly) the people in them. The philosophical implications are thin, too, putting Tenet near the bottom of the big budget auteur’s rather impressive body of work — which, to be sure, still ranks it higher than most by-the-numbers tentpoles.

A super-agent spy thriller in the slick, glossy mold of Mission: Impossible and James Bond, Tenet travelogues the globe in considerable style. The Protagonist (that’s literally the credited name of the lead character, played by BlacKkKlansman star John David Washington) is recruited into a mission where something even bigger than the fate of the world is on the line: actual existence itself.

An uber-rich Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) has mastered a technique known as Inversion. In its simplest expression, objects are made to move in reverse by the mere thought or will of the person who engages them.

None of this, however, is by accident or magic. The inverted nature is encoded into these objects at some point in the future; their effects are actualized in the past – which is this story’s present.

Don’t ask me how that works, although it partially involves a brilliantly simple approach to time travel: archiving instructions in the present and then patiently waiting for an Inversion gurus of the far future to implement them so as to have them realized way back here in the present.

I’m guessing a fuller explanation beyond that is somewhere to be found in Tenet, one that multiple, careful viewings of this movie would glean. The narrative is as intentionally dense as it is swift-moving – which is to say Nolan doesn’t care if you comprehend how it all works or not. As someone tells the Protagonist early on, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” Nolan is effectively advising us to do the same and it’s a good tip to take, both for this movie and most of his others.

For Tenet, it means that the heavy lifting required isn’t so much intellectual as perceptual. You may not always grasp the game plan or strategy of a given mission or sequence, but the goals are always clear and you’ll know victory or defeat when you see it.

For a good portion of Tenet’s runtime, the whole inversion thing exists more on the periphery of the plot rather than driving it. The net effect is a movie that begins to feel as if its big idea is little more than a one-trick MacGuffin (intriguing though it may be), not unlike a one-joke sketch or, worse yet, a one-joke movie.

But then in the final hour-plus — starting with a riveting sequence that plays out on two sides of walled-off partition where Branagh’s oligarch communicates via phone from his inverted reality to the Protagonist’s actual reality – the whole thing starts to come together, further revealing itself as it dramatically expands, so much so that a whole new form of time travel is broached (conceptual spoiler alert; highlight to read): watching people travel back in time in real time. Instead of punching up an exact date / time coordinate for destination, one begins at a present moment to walk back against time’s tide, as if through a surging river.

If you’re a Nolan geek, think of it this way: if Memento was a story told simultaneously backwards and forwards until it ended in the middle (which it was), then Tenet turns that narrative construct into an actual metaphysical plane that transcends time and space.

Mental gymnastics ensue – as do really cool visual ones, most of which were practically staged on-set in-camera rather than digitally faked. You can tell, too, which makes it more credible and exhilarating, especially in Nolan’s grand, glorious cinematic scope (experienced at its best in IMAX).

The characters and relationships are where Tenet lacks. Attempts are made but they all feel perfunctory and rote; I can’t say I cared about anyone or what their fate might be.

Washington and Elizabeth Debicki (Widows, Guardians of the Galaxy) serve their individual roles well, but they completely lack the chemistry their relationship arc demands, and Branagh (while solid) isn’t quite as formidable as he needs to be. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, is given the rare opportunity to have some gleeful, mischievous fun – and he does.

But the premise and plot are the thing here, as are the images they evoke, and on those foundations Tenet earns a re-watch. The net effect triggers a desire to for a second viewing, especially as the film’s third act properly frames what we should go back and look for.

In its blockbuster bombast, Tenet is definitely a movie that you feel – not emotionally but viscerally. That makes for a fun, exhilarating ride that loops around in the title’s palindrome fashion, but the whole lacks a more substantive, resonant alchemy.

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