It’s a pity that “Tenet,” the latest science-fiction blockbuster directed by Christopher Nolan, is so inevitably tied up in the questions of coronavirus, both for film criticism reasons and the much more pressing public health ones. Since it is, however, I can give you a handy guide: If you don’t generally enjoy confusing films or movies by Nolan (whose past films include reasonably twisty numbers like “Memento” and “Inception”), you can safely skip seeing this movie in theaters.
If you like either of those, you may want to catch “Tenet” at a drive-in, or, as I did, in a large theater with only two other sitting masked-up patrons many feet away. Do what you can to stay safe — but also sane! — during this stressful time to be alive.
The word that kept coming back to me as I watched “Tenet” was “audacious.” In hindsight, it seems insane that Warner Bros. once pegged this movie as the tent pole of its summer offerings, situating it in a plum July spot before the pandemic changed all of our plans. I can’t remember the last time I watched a modern movie made for so much money that so steadfastly refused to compromise one iota for its audience — and, honestly, I kind of loved “Tenet” for that.
The film opens with a near-death experience on the part of John David Washington’s character, a CIA agent who is officially unnamed but often is referred to as “The Protagonist.” After proving his mettle in the field, he is inducted into Tenet, a secret international organization with the goal of fighting a war being waged against the present by unknown parties from the future. As the film continues, this war will be manifested in a myriad of ways, but its primary representation at the beginning is in the arrival of “inverted” weaponry: guns and bullets that appear to be flowing backward through time. To aid in his quest to avert a reverse-time apocalypse, The Protagonist enlists the help of British special agent Neil (Robert Pattinson) and art seller Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the latter of whom puts him in contact with the sadistic arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branaugh).
The plot is almost unspoilable. In fact, “Tenet’s” greatest achievement may be that the film’s story does hang together moment to moment in your mind while being difficult to describe coherently afterward.
The thing that is great about Christopher Nolan (who also holds “Tenet’s” sole screenplay credit) is that, increasingly, he makes movies that only Christopher Nolan could make. Studios don’t just give out $200 million to directors to make high-concept sci-fi not based on any existing properties; Nolan is virtually alone in his ability to command blockbuster-level funding to create whatever he wants.
In that context, “Tenet” is likely to read to Nolan’s fans as the apotheosis of the director’s obsessions, particularly as it relates to his presentation of time. It focuses on the time paradoxes of “Interstellar” while experimenting with the unorthodox portrayals of time elapsing found in “Dunkirk” and “Inception.” There are nods to his other work, as well, like the “answer in plain sight” premise of “The Prestige” and even a return to the controversial, muffled-behind-masks dialogue of “The Dark Knight Rises,” almost as if Nolan is thumbing his nose at critics in light of his seemingly infinite creative freedom. He also, as has long been clear, really wants to direct a James Bond movie, and “Tenet,” with its well-dressed spy, exotic locale and high-stakes action, is as close as he’s yet come.
As a fan of Nolan’s and of filmmakers creating deeply personal blockbusters unbound by studio constraints (see also: the Star Wars prequels), I really appreciated “Tenet.” That being said, however, I could easily see many moviegoers not enjoying it.
The action is great fun, framed gorgeously by Hoyte van Hoytema and featuring both delightful camera wizardry and an indulgence of practical effects (for one scene in which a plane explodes, the filmmakers blew up a real plane). However, it’s hard to understate the bendiness of the plot. For the most part, I was able to track what was going on, but I feel generally well equipped to follow complex plots, and even I got lost in a few of the particulars. The film has lots of rapid-fire exposition explaining its time travel mechanics, but it basically expects you to understand those mechanics and commit them to memory. When the temporally manipulated action scenes are actually unfolding, you shouldn’t expect any kind of hand-holding or friendly reorientation. This will definitely be a burden for some audiences who may not want to watch every scene with a hawk-like attention for two and a half hours.
Beyond that, the film suffers from a couple of storytelling issues, where it’s supposed to be clear but isn’t until later what characters were actually doing in a given scene. You also have to squint a little harder for the thematic resonance here, as opposed to his recent works like “Dunkirk” and “Interstellar,” which offer intensely personal stakes. All of the characters are likeable in “Tenet,” but the world around them is so hectic and confusing that you can’t relate to them in the same way you can in Nolan’s best films.
Those issues aside, I still had a great time watching “Tenet.” Nolan’s among the best directors of big, blockbuster action, and I have to admire the ambition on display. Even if the final product isn’t perfect, “Tenet” is still one of the rarest things to see in a big studio movie these days: something genuinely different.
Ryan Howard writes about pop culture for The Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.