Christopher Nolan is a writer, director and basically a franchise unto himself by this point, having racked up accolades from the Dark Knight series, Interstellar, Dunkirk and more. Going back to his earliest films like Memento he has always had a fascination with time and fragmented non-linear narratives. Memento is a complex but not incomprehensible watch, ditto for Inception. His most recent film, Tenet, feels probably the most like Inception where he plays rather aggressively with narrative structure, visual trickery, and a hell of a lot of well-dressed people delivering exposition. This is probably one time where Nolan has created a bit too much of a complex plot twisting as sometimes the “why” things are happening is often confusingly explained. Nolan likes keeping things oblique but there’s oblique and then just nonsense and Tenet dips into the latter. But the movie works in a visceral sense, stuff going backwards is extremely visually cool, there is a great sense of momentum, and it clicks emotionally. Even a less than great Nolan movie is better than most of anything else.
A CIA agent, who is eventually nicknamed the Protagonist (John David Washington), is recruited by an agency known as Tenet. He is told that there is a war in the future and people are sending back technology that can “invert” time, making objects and even people run backwards. The Protagonist is trying to find a potentially nuclear device with the help of a Tenet agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson). This leads them to Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) the estranged wife of a Russian arms dealer, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who possesses the inversion technology. It turns out the device is not nuclear it is another critical piece of inversion technology and Sator has apocalyptic ambitions. Now the Protagonist and Neil must bend time and space to save humanity.
Tonally this is sort of a time travelling sci-fi James Bond movie, however since Bond sometimes dips so much into technological nonsense Bond might as well sometimes be categorized as sci-fi anyway. Nolan has always worn his Bond movie influence on his sleeve and the Protagonist in Tenet has a very James Bond-like arc where he’s an maverick agent who falls for the paramour of the bad guy leading up to explosions and apocalyptic stakes. But the explosions here are sometimes backwards and forwards and the apocalyptic stakes are time travel paradoxes. Inception also had a Bond movie vibe so it seems like Nolan really wants to make a Bond movie but with weird slow motion, backwards stuff and more exposition than even most Bond movies.
Nolan sometimes does things so subtly that actual proper exposition can be hard to follow, which is frustrating as Tenet often breaks its own narrative rules on the fly. There is a distinct difference between time travel and other moments when people are inverted, something the movie only sort of explains. Trying to follow how the characters logically go from point A to point B is ultimately an exercise in futility which is a shame since the narrative tricks are part of the fun of Nolan movies. What Tenet does extremely well is putting in spectacular visuals. It may not make a lot of sense why a building explodes, de-explodes and then re-explodes again but its unique. Another great visual is a terrifying and intense moment when Sator is threatening to shoot Kat in front of the Protagonist that starts running backwards and then forwards. When there is a fight between the Protagonist and a fella moving backwards due to time travel tricks, the brawl gets to pay off twice.
Washington as the hero has a few moments of intensity as he’s sort of bland yet likable, which is what most Nolan heroes are, and he gets in a few quips. As Neil, Pattison looks cool while dealing a lot of sardonic exposition. The two characters are a shallowly written but the actors play well off each other. Kat is sort of a thankless role; she is mostly tortured for a chunk of the movie while sighing about wanting to escape with her son from her evil husband but Debicki adds a lot of empathy. Probably the most bombastic is Branagh as the evil time bending mastermind and he is palpably nasty throughout. There’s also Dimple Kapadia as a big figure in the Tenet organization as her and Washington share a few scenes where they talk about the war in the future and how it effects the present. It is an interesting way to present a time-war story; nobody comes back from the future or a showy flashforward, it just involves people talking about nasty folk in the future trying to destroy the present. Since the actors are so good it has impact.
Tenet is a lot of narrative tricks in service of incredible wide scope action. It may lose a bit of steam with all the jawing about what is going to happen before it happens, but it pays off in spectacle, if not coherent logic. It would probably take about three viewings to make total sense. And probably not entirely then. But backwards action scenes rock!
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki