“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” a scientist tells The Protagonist ( John David Washington ) early on in Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s weirdest, weakest, and maybe most interesting film. Watching a lot of movies means viewing a lot of failures, but rarely with the level of craft and confidence as this incomprehensible 2.5 hour long time-travel spy movie. I may never stop thinking about it. Maybe I’ll eventually grow to love it anyway.
It’s a time travel film unlike any you’ve ever seen. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Nolan is the 21st century’s foremost popular auteur. His action movies bridge the gap between high concept and rote clanking-swat-boots bang bang punch punch ‘grounded’ violence. He brought Batman into the ‘real world;’ he made the dreamscape, long a realm for surrealism in movies, look like a blend of Michael Mann and James Bond. Here, he applies the concept of time travel to his action aesthetic. It is as odd and off-putting as it is compelling. Nobody will ever make a movie like Tenet again, and they really shouldn’t. One wonders if it even makes sense to Nolan.
(It isn’t much of a spoiler to describe it, but if you’re wary, go ahead and stop reading)
In Tenet, objects can have their entropy reversed. Effect comes before Cause. Nolan very explicitly explains this using a character with a camera early on. Essentially the world of Tenet is a singular timeline from start to finish, and characters can move forward or backwards on that timeline at will. Perspective is key here: when Nolan focuses on one character viewing other characters moving forward or reverse, it isn’t hard to understand. Towards the end of the movie he tries to expand it to a much larger context and it gets lost in the hubbub. In many ways Tenet is comparable to The Dark Knight Rises, which also lost itself in ideas larger than the actual characters and stories could naturally handle.
Additionally, the fight choreography when one forward fighter faces off against a backwards fighter remains unsatisfying after two viewings. It’s a really neat idea that simply isn’t pulled off coherently enough. Fight scenes are essentially dance sequences (a fact that Nolan has frequently forgotten via his influential use of garbled quick-cuts), so imagine two dancers trying to pull off a routine when ones movements are running backwards in time. Although he eventually revisits most of these moments from the viewpoint of the reversed fighter, it doesn’t really help much. One imagines film fans online will eventually splice the two fights together to make sense of them, but that doesn’t speak well of the movie itself.
The key to enjoying Tenet is to accept the fact that it is a tremendously stupid movie. Nolan has been open about his love for the James Bond franchises, and this is basically a very silly Bond film with a Big Idea that is cooler in theory than in execution. If Inception’s climax was an ode to the iconic ending to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (one of the best Bonds), Tenet is tribute to Thunderball, Sean Connery’s worst outing as the character that was bogged down by a production team who discovered underwater cameras and decided to shoot half the movie using them regardless of whether the whole story suffered.
Nolan is fortunate to have brought on composer Ludwig Göransson, who carries the movie completely. Hans Zimmer passed on Tenet to write the music for this year’s Dune adaptation, and I’m glad he did. While the Tenet score sounds similar in some respects to Zimmer’s previous work with Nolan (the director clearly likes what he likes), this is undeniably a massive trade-up.
I have watched Tenet twice: once vicariously through the phone lens of someone in China (thanks!) and once at my local drive-in theater. I don’t really subscribe to the notion that seeing Tenet in a real theater would have improved the experience, but I do think seeing it with my friends would have. If there is any conclusion to make about the state of moviegoing in our current pandemic predicament, it would be that re-opening theaters without the ability to actually sit next to your friends and enjoy the movie together means re-opening theaters without the essential ingredient that makes them worthwhile. It’s hard to say whether I would’ve walked / driven out of Tenet feeling differently if it had featured post-show discussion of the mind-bending action bits. Possibly. I certainly want to talk about them.
Some reviews question whether the movie is easier to understand a second time. Yes and no. The silly walk-and-talk plot is, but the action sequences are not.
Maybe the inescapable fact about Tenet is that, like the rest of Nolan’s generally flawed filmography, it definitely reaches for a big idea it never quite grasps. Nolan’s post-Inception sci-fi blockbusters lack whatever it is that allows him to convey it to perfection. Heart? Patience? Whatever. Tenet is a big, stupid movie that will never leave the conversation amongst action movie fans simply because it does dare to try something different. We still talk about Thunderball, don’t we?