More than any other Christopher Nolan film, Tenet is all about time. I’m not just talking about the time travel mechanic at the core of this sci-fi spy flick, either. Warner Bros. Pictures’ decision to repeatedly reschedule its release date was a real-life saga all of its own, fuelling anticipation levels to the point where Tenet was positioned as the saviour of cinema in a COVID-19 ravaged world.
That’s an unfair burden for any filmmaker to carry, but given Nolan’s dedication to preserving the artform – the acclaimed auteur previously spearheaded the campaign to preserve celluloid film stock – one he seems uniquely suited to shouldering. And to a large extent, the writer-director rises to the challenge, crafting a bravura blockbuster that’s not only worth the wait, but crucially, one that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen.
But is Tenet a masterpiece on par with the likes of Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar or Dunkirk? Not even close – which is a shame, as it’s arguably Nolan’s most personal film to date.
A conventional spy story, told unconventionally
But I’m getting ahead of myself; first, let’s briefly recap what Tenet is about. Like all Nolan films, simply describing the basic premise doesn’t do the sweeping scale and delightful mindfuckery on display justice. However, in short, Tenet is the story of The Protagonist (John David Washington), a CIA operative who joins the ranks of Tenet, a secret organisation that uses “time inversion” – reversing the entropy of people and objects to send them backwards through time – to avert an extinction-level threat.
Along the way, he drafts another covert operative, droll Englishman Neil (Robert Pattinson), into the fold, and together, they pursue Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian arms dealer who may hold the key to averting armageddon. But to reach Sator, the Protagonist will need to get close to his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), and his mission soon becomes far more complicated…
If even this top-level summary of Tenet’s plot leaves your head spinning, trust me: I’ve barely scratched the surface. Yet ultimately, the film’s underlying espionage-thriller narrative is a fairly conventional one; it’s only thanks to Nolan’s skills as a storyteller that everything unfolds so unconventionally.
It was the best of Nolan movies, it was the worst of Nolan movies
These prodigious talents – particularly when it comes to devising novel conceits and unorthodox plot structures – have never been unleashed to the extent they are here, and coupled with Tenet’s full-blown manifestation of its architect’s fixation on time as a concept, this means we’re left with the most fully “Christopher Nolan” movie ever made…for better and for worse.
Because as much as Tenet represents the very best of what Nolan brings to the table, it’s also a prime example of all the filmmaker’s very worst tendencies, the great elements regularly rubbing up against the not-so-great over the course of a single scene.
Snappy dialogue gives way to leaden exposition. Profound, implicit themes – our greatest enemy is essentially the future we’ve created for ourselves – are overshadowed by clunky discussions about fate and free will or clumsy meta elements (“The Protagonist”? I mean, really…). Stunningly shot vistas (take a bow, director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema) and inventive set pieces that seamlessly blend practical and digital effects are accompanied by a Ludwig Göransson score that straddles the line between bombastic and obnoxious.
Admittedly, Tenet also happens to be commendably cerebral and undeniably exhilarating, but more than any other Nolan joint, the script is paradoxically under and overcooked. Some concepts – such as the true nature of the Tenet organisation itself – are left frustratingly vague and nagging plot holes linger, while the intricate, overstuffed narrative leaves little time for character development, resulting in an emotionally distant (albeit fitfully moving) epic that does little to counter the criticism that Nolan’s oeuvre lacks heart.
All of which isn’t to say that Tenet is a bad movie. On the contrary – when it’s on, boy, is it on. Funnier than it’ll get credit for, this is also Nolan’s most pervasively unsettling outing and hands-down his most disorienting, both of which make it a highly engrossing affair, and when it’s time for Nolan to finally show his cards, the payoff is suitably rewarding.
Who needs characterisation when you’ve got a cast this good?
It doesn’t hurt that the cast is uniformly excellent, either. Given what amounts to a cocktail napkin’s worth of characterisation and motivation to work with, Washington and Pattinson compensate by bringing an appropriate amount of swagger and disarming depth to their roles, but it’s the performances by Debicki and Branagh that impress most.
Together, they paint a portrait of a toxic relationship that’s believable and raw amid all the sci-fi shenanigans going on around them, and theirs is easily the most emotionally resonant plot thread Tenet has to offer. Of the two actors, Branagh deserves particularly praise for his turn as Sator, transforming a somewhat two-dimensional villain into something decidedly more rounded through a combination of restrained menace, explosive fury, and unexpected tenderness.
Tenet: mission accomplished?
So, when all is said and done, Tenet is a good movie – but is it good enough to save the film industry in 2020? It’s hard to say. Certainly, the film’s convoluted narrative and emotional remoteness isn’t likely to win Nolan any new fans, and negative buzz could hurts ticket sales at a time when people aren’t exactly rushing back to public spaces to begin with.
Yet there’s also an inescapable thrill that comes from seeing filmmaking of this scale projected on the biggest screen you can find – it’s a kind of shared spectacle that seems increasingly rare in a world of smart phones and streaming services – and if that’s not enough to entice audiences back to theatres, nothing is.
Sure, like the Protagonist and Neil, Nolan occasionally falters during the course of his mission, and it’s unlikely anybody will ever mention Tenet in the same breath as Inception, unless it’s to compare the former unflatteringly to the latter. However, just like our heroes, you get the sense that the director has got just enough right here to succeed – in his case, both as a storyteller and as Hollywood’s anointed saviour.