Now that we are free from the massive fanfare of the much-lauded cinematic release of Tenet (the first major studio tentpole movie that was released since the start of the COVID19 pandemic) it is time to take a step back, allow a deep breath, and ask a vital question: “What the bloody hell is Tenet about?”
Flippant introductory paragraphs aside, director Christopher Nolan has cast himself into a brand of his own making, consistently delivering movies that are huge on spectacle and galaxy brain in concept. The Prestige went from sleight of hand to drop of jaw. Inception gave us multi-layered dreaming. And Interstellar grappled with time dilation effect space travel. Tenet goes one step further and introduces the concept of ‘inversion’: items or people that have ‘negative entropy’ and thus move backwards through time whilst everyone else is going forwards.
An unnamed CIA operative (played by John David Washington and simply referred to as ‘The Protagonist’ in the credits) stumbles into the tendrils of Tenet: a group defending themselves from an apparent war with the future. Battling with an enemy who can move backwards through time armed with foreknowledge is difficult enough, but all parties are searching for an apparent doomsday device that will envelop the Earth with negative entropy, with devastating consequences.
A rule of thumb to apply to Nolan films seems to be the higher the concept, the duller the characters. Despite a charismatically strong performance from Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and excellent ‘twinkle in the eye’ support from Robert Pattinson, should you blink and take a moment in the middle of the film it may be hard to work out why you should even care. Once again the human element is missing. Inception and Interstellar both got to lean on family dynamics to do the emotive heavy lifting. Tenet, for reasons best known to itself, lifts a portion of The Night Manager.
An antagonist in the form of abusive rich oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and trapped girlfriend Kat Barton not only mirrors The Night Manager’s central plot closely but also casts the same actress in Elizabeth Debicki. Debicki is superb, as she was in The Night Manager, at subverting her statuesque model appearance by revealing an interior bubbling with pride, fear, and defiance. Caring about the fate of a woman in fear for her life and that of her family is all well and good, but it’s only tangentially related to the high concept plot parping on around her.
Perhaps the more fitting movie in Nolan’s back catalogue to compare Tenet to is actually Memento. His peculiarly palindromic party which began at both the start and the end until both sides of the plot met up in the middle, come the closing credits. It is true that even the most fervently attentive movie-goer will likely feel the need to give Tenet a second viewing to piece the plot together. It is arguable if Nolan crafting the movie this way is respecting the audience’s intelligence or is an effort to deliberately bamboozle attention away from parts that make little sense under scrutiny.
We’re here for the spectacle though, right? Tenet certainly delivers there. However we end up at these set pieces they are fantastic viewing. Bullets getting ‘unfired’ litter the movie and surely nowhere else will you see a building getting such a temporal battering that it doesn’t know if it’s collapsing or constructing. The mid-point features a superb fight / unfight which, like the ‘spinning corridor’ punch up of Inception, stands out as a true highlight. Once the waffling on gets shoved to one side, Nolan really gets to play with the backwards / forwards time concept to delicious aplomb.
Here’s a closing paragraph that can be cut and pasted into most Nolan films. The grand sum of all these parts, however individually frustrating, is a big bold movie that proffers enough intelligence and combines it with such a jaw-dropping cinematic experience that you are left feeling like you experienced a Movie. I’m never going to well up with tears or leap for joy after watching a Nolan movie (Dunkirk aside), but I’m darn well going to watch the next one he makes because who knows what 360-degree wonder he’ll come up with next? A world where computers generate and sell Emotion Units™ to the psychically wounded perhaps? Give us a call, would ya Chris?!
Words by Mike Record