Note: for more thoughts on Tenet’s theatrical situation check out this essay.
Tenet very well not simply be “just a movie” to me. For the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic the movie has been this sort of mythic thing that could be the salvation of theatrical exhibition and movie going as a whole. When almost every other movie around it balked and moved its release date it stood firm in its belief that it would open in July back when it still seemed there was hope that this mess would be solved by then. As that date approached and it was moved back but only by a few weeks and then another few weeks it began to seem less like a possible salvation to cinema and more as a possible death blow, something that could well get people killed by encouraging theaters to open too soon. I think I’m going to be writing a separate piece about my own thoughts about the ethics of opening this thing and my own decision to see it, but I don’t want to dwell on that too much here because I feel like Tenet does on some level deserve to be considered separate from these circumstances but on the other hand I’m not sure I can entirely separate this viewing experience form its context. Regardless a bit part of why the film’s eventual release has seemed like such a tantalizing prospect (while the possibility of other releases like Mulan and Unhinged have not) is what Christopher Nolan’s movies represent for the film community and in relation to theatrical distribution under better circumstances. Nolan’s films are events, almost always the most anticipated films of whatever year they come out, so for his latest to be in this position is kind of a rich irony.
The film follows a man known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who is with the CIA who finds himself captured by the enemy during a botched rescue/infiltration during a hostage situation in Ukraine. Under interrogation he takes a suicide pill which turns out not to really be a suicide pill and wakes up on a boat being debriefed by a man named Victor (Martin Donovan) who informs him that now that he’s “dead” they will be sending him on a mission reserved for those who have shown the utmost loyalty. This mission relates to certain objects that have appeared which seems to coming backwards through time from the future through a process called entropy inversion. This investigation sends him to India where he meets a contact named Neil (Robert Pattinson) who points him toward an arms dealer named Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia) who in turn points them towards an Anglo-Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) as a likely person at the center of this mystery and The Protagonist sets out to infiltrate his organization through making contact with his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).
Christopher Nolan has built his career making movies with complicated chronologies and rules that some people have found “confusing.” Personally I’ve never had much trouble with them. Memento seems pretty easy to follow as long as you pay attention to it and catch on to its forwards and backwards chronology, Inception works just fine as long as you jive with its time bending internal rules, and Dunkirk makes perfect sense if you bother to read the title cards that explain that its three sections run across different durations of time. And yet I ended up hearing people tell me they were “lost” in all three of these movies despite the clear trail of clues (and some would say “clunky exposition”) that they all provided and I’ve kind of scoffed at them. Well this time the joke was kind of on me because while I wouldn’t say I was completely confused by Tenet the movie was usually a few steps ahead of me and I had some trouble keeping up with it. The movie kind of combines the usual convulsion of spy movies (with their double crosses and secret agendas) with the usual convolutions of science fiction/time travel movies (with their rules and paradoxes), and it probably didn’t help that I needed to watch it while dealing with the distraction of trying to keep my mask from fogging up my glasses all while contemplating the morality of potentially aiding the spread of a deadly virus by being in the theater watching this thing.
I think part of the problem is that this movie often does not go out of its way to explain all of The Protagonists moves, which often feel a bit out of proportion to certain steps in the process and I often found myself thinking “wait, what are they even trying to do here” midway through certain set-pieces. Take an early scene where they attempt to break into an art repository in order to destroy a forged painting that the villain is using to blackmail his wife. We are given some perfunctory dialogue explaining the importance of this, but it’s never really driven home and by the time they’re actually breaking in getting to the actual painting seems to be the last thing on anyone’s mind and I don’t even remember them showing if they succeeded or failed at getting it. At other points the movie throws scenes at the audience that almost seem calibrated to leave them unsure what they’re watching until after their given some exposition later on. It is perhaps ironic that the movie is coming out at a point where it feels dangerous to even see the movie once because more than any other movie this feels like it was designed to be watched multiple times as this first viewing almost seemed like it was just there to prime me for when my future self goes through this experience over again, which is kind of meta in its own way.
Since seeing the movie I’ve read up on some of the plot machinations and think I caught more of it on first viewing than I had thought. On a second viewing I think that will be less of an issue. What I’m more hesitant about is the human side of the film so much as it exists. As his lack of name suggests, The Protagonist is a bit of a cypher in the film. We know next to nothing about his past and he has few defining characteristics aside from his persistence in completing his mission. John David Washington gives him some personality but otherwise there’s not really a whole lot there, but that at least is by design. The bigger problem here is that I never really found Andrei Sator to be a terribly compelling villain and was also not very into his twisted relationship with his wife. We’ve seen Kenneth Branagh play Russian oligarch’s before in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and while that was a deeply forgettable movie I think that performance stood out to me a bit more and when we finally learned this character’s motivations for acting as the antagonist here I found it strange, unconvincing, and in some ways contradictory to his wife’s motivations earlier in the film. That having been said I didn’t actively dislike these characters either so much as I feel like they could have been more interesting than they were.
In a lot of ways I think the movie actually might have worked better if it had been less grounded than the usual Nolan film and had instead embraced its inner-James Bond and had been more of a straight up romp. The science in the film is basically made up nonsense and the villain is pretty much a cackling madman, why not just go all the way and give that villain a pet shark and a more colorful henchman while they’re at it. In many ways it’s probably the least flavorful and most purely Nolan movie that Nolan has made in a while. It lacks the historical realism he was going for in Dunkirk and the sentimentality he was experimenting with in Interstellar and the political commentary and literary allusion of The Dark Knight Rises or even the psychology of Inception. It’s probably the closest he’s come to making a pure formal exercise in puzzling his audience since Memento but even that movie was shooting for a bit more of an emotional core. The movie I’d probably most readily compare is probably actually Shane Carruth’s Primer, which this almost feels like a sort of big budget action movie riff on. In other ways the whole thing almost feels like Nolan indulging himself, not necessarily in a bad way, to see if he can take his usual trickery to its natural extreme and to just mess around with that while not having to worry too much about, like, historical accuracy or authentic astrophysics.
Now, I feel like I’ve focused way too much on the negative up to now, which is strange because I actually quite like this movie and if I rip on it a little it’s because I hold Nolan to a high standard and want to explore why this didn’t necessarily hit me as hard as something like Inception. Let me make it clear that there are definitely things about this movie that do deliver. There are some action scenes here that manage to use the time inversion thing in some really impressive ways, particularly a fight scene and a car chase which we end up seeing twice and making more sense of with additional information. There’s another scene, essentially an interrogation using the film’s central technology which did not make the slightest bit of sense to me while I was watching it but which I strongly suspect will work better for me on a re-watch. In fact I kind of have a lot of faith that a lot of scenes here were staged in a rather meticulous way which will be revealed to be pretty spectacular achievements when we examine them and see how well they come together and hold up to scrutiny… but that’s not necessarily something to appreciate on a first viewing.
In fact I’m in a generally strange position with Tenet because I think I like the movie a lot more than I liked my frustrating compromised first viewing experience. That probably sounds odd and I’m sure there are plenty of people who won’t have any patience with a movie that baffles them at first glance. It’s definitely a movie that Nolan made “for the fans” and won’t exactly win over the people who’ve complained in the past about his obsession with rules and his challenges writing compelling female characters and certainly won’t impress the people who’ve found his work cold and unemotional. It even reminds me a bit of his brother Johnathan Nolan’s TV show “Westworld” in that it almost seems to exist as much for people to deconstruct on Reddit as it does to simply be watched. I’d say it’s one of his lesser works and there are limits to how much of a benefit of a doubt I can give it under the assumption I will more firmly grasp it on future viewings. But I also think it’s one of the year’s best movies (albeit sort of by default) despite whatever misgivings I might have. I guess even when Nolan is kind of missing the forest for the trees he’s still better than most of his peers.
**** out of Five