Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel and Michael Caine.
A mysterious operative becomes embroiled in the work of the titular organisation, working to avoid a World War Three fought with the technology of time inversion.
Every time Christopher Nolan makes a movie, it’s an event. Along with Quentin Tarantino, he’s arguably the only director who can sell audiences on a film just with his name. All of that has been cranked up a level for Tenet, which is the first blockbuster of 2020 since Pixar’s Onward hit cinemas at the beginning of March, more than five months ago. In some of the more hysterical corners of the internet, Nolan is being dubbed a sort of saviour for the big screen thanks to his commitment that Tenet and its myriad secrets would remain sealed until it was once again safe to sit in a darkened room in front of a massive screen.
While Nolan’s importance to cinema as a whole has certainly been overstated, there’s no denying that Tenet is exactly the sort of film that fans have wanted. The high-concept actioner is big, bombastic and does everything with the most epic scale possible. It’s a lot like being punched in the face by Cinema™, in the best and worst ways.
The film opens with a frenetic, gripping terrorist siege at an opera house in Kiev, in which an intelligence operative (John David Washington) takes a suicide pill when he is captured. He awakens in a hospital and is told he has passed a test that puts him on a collision course with an organisation known only as “Tenet”. He’s soon jetting, Bond-style, across the globe on the tail of bullets that have been inverted, meaning they experience time in reverse, as well as other artefacts believed to be “the detritus of a coming war”.
“Don’t try to understand it,” says Clémence Poésy’s mysterious scientist, “feel it”. She doesn’t quite do Basil Exposition’s look to camera at this point, but it’s implied.
The conceit of time inversion is a complex one that’s capable of scrambling the brains of even the most intelligent people, particularly as Tenet shows a bold willingness to push the idea further and further as its epic runtime unfolds. It’s no coincidence that Nolan once again thanks physicist Kip Thorne – with whom he worked on Interstellar – in the credits. Thankfully, Washington’s protagonist doesn’t fully understand it and neither does Robert Pattinson’s ultra-suave espionage dude Neil. Yep, just Neil. Like the bloke at the pub who sells dodgy DVDs for a fiver.
Washington and Pattinson’s investigation quickly focuses on a loathsome Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) and his art dealer wife Catherine (Elizabeth Debicki). Washington’s Protagonist – the only moniker he is ever given – becomes close to Catherine, who is trapped in her marriage despite her husband’s legitimately terrifying, violent outbursts. Branagh is terrifically unsettling as a man prone to spitting with unbridled rage one minute and, the next, calmly recounting his penchant for stuffing enemies’ testicles into their freshly cut throats. Safe to say, he’s not a nice dude.
Across the board here, the performances are very strong indeed. Washington has evidently inherited the leading man charisma of his father and Pattinson is transparently having the time of his life as a smooth-talking guy who looks great in a suit. James Bond for the millennial generation. Debicki is perhaps the standout of the entire movie, making the most of every morsel she is handed by Nolan’s script, which again shows the filmmaker’s struggles with constructing female characters who actually possess depth beyond being a puzzle for the male heroes to solve. She lifts her material shoulder-high and, given she towers over most of the men, that’s pretty high indeed.
Tenet is perhaps the densest of Nolan’s films on a theoretical level, but it eschews the Inception approach of constant explanation in favour of simply winding up the mechanism and daring the audience to keep up. This is an often frustrating approach that leaves the movie unfolding in a strange hinterland of genuinely thrilling, but utterly impenetrable. There’s a sense, though, that even when the audience is all at sea, Nolan’s hand on the tiller is firm and knowledgeable. It feels like you’re in good hands, even when the combination of baffling temporal mechanics and deafening set pieces threatens to induce migraines. If a headache can ever be pleasurable, it’s when watching Tenet.
Those set pieces, when they come, are largely exquisite. The opening heist thrums with frenetic energy and danger, while a later scene of inverted fighting has more than a whiff of Cronenbergian body horror. Nolan, wisely, uses inversion for wildly ambitious scenes of cars running in reverse and somersaulting through the air, but also for subtly unsettling sequences in which human beings move like macabre marionettes, as if manipulated by an unseen force. There’s a thrill to seeing earlier fights and chases play out in reverse, even if the machinations of the narrative scarcely make sense.
With the set pieces operating at such a high level – the plane crash glimpsed in the trailer is simply spectacular and a time-bending car chase is utterly unique – it’s disappointing that the third act regresses to lots of pretty generic running and shooting in which everyone looks essentially identical. A magician’s sleeve of climactic twists means the movie ends on an impressive note, but the muddled blandness of the Call of Duty-esque final conflict rather undercuts the ambition of the movie around it.
In short, Tenet is every inch a Christopher Nolan movie. It’s as infuriating as it is masterful and challenges the audience to match the intelligence of a filmmaker who conjures a dense, knotty narrative framework and then hammers the gas pedal so hard that no audience could keep pace. More than anything the director has produced before, this feels like he has made his James Bond film – a globe-trotting spy tale, albeit one infused with a devilishly tricksy high-concept flavour. As much as it may not match the heights of his filmography, it’s tough to imagine a more tempting carrot to get people back through the doors of the multiplex.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.