Christopher Nolan loves to play with time, from Memento’s backwards story to Interstellar’s anti-aging gravity antics to the perfect ticking clock that is Dunkirk. But he’s never fiddled around with time as much as he does here in Tenet, a film so committed to flitting backwards and forwards through its chronology that even its title is a palindrome. Burdened with absurd expectations – this is meant to be the blockbuster that ‘saves film’ post-lockdown – Tenet sometimes collapses under its own weight, but Nolan’s gift for shock and awe makes it a thrilling, and decidedly cinematic, experience.
It’s hard to summarise Tenet’s incredibly dense plot, but its basic building blocks will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the spy genre. An unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) is given a globe-trotting task to find an all-powerful MacGuffin. He’s helped along the way by mysterious and debonair British agent Neil (Robert Pattinson), as well as the glamorous Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art dealer who happens to be the wife of Russian supervillain Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, chewing the scenery as he pushes the boundaries of the 12a rating). The MacGuffin in question is a method of ‘inverting’ time, creating a parallel timeline moving in an opposite direction to ours.
The clash of these two timelines could have cataclysmic effects, so it’s up to our merry band of spies to save the world. With a premise this knotty, a substantial portion of the first hour is taken up by leaden exposition dumps, so much so that even Pattinson has to spend some of his screentime explaining theoretical physics. This world-building often takes the place of character work, which feels particularly egregious when you realise that it’s actually rather unnecessary – the characters themselves constantly state that you shouldn’t try and understand inversion, and it’s far more intuitive in practice than on paper.
When he gets to show off inversion in action, Nolan shines incredibly bright. The action sequences here, especially the hand to hand fights, are quite literally like nothing you’ve ever seen on screen before. The stunt choreography is jaw-dropping, scenes playing out both forwards and backwards simultaneously with minimal CG effects. It’s a marvel to witness and adds a freshness to all the races against time that otherwise might feel cliché. A pitched battle towards the climax, in which armies from multiple timelines clash, is one of the most ambitious set-pieces of Nolan’s career, and he pulls it off without a false move. It’s the kind of epic action filmmaking of which only he is currently capable, pretty much worth the price of admission on its own.
Much has been written of how confusing Tenet is, but that is often more down to a clearly brutal edit (even at 150 minutes long, you can feel the film straining to pack everything in) than an overly convoluted script. Yes, you won’t wrap your head around every implication of the shifts through time on your first watch, but you’re also not really meant to, and the paradoxes caused by the interactions of the timelines are no more complicated than those encountered in, say, the third Harry Potter film. That’s not to say that Tenet doesn’t hold additional rewards for particularly attentive viewers or those going through the story for a second time, though, and the arcs of certain characters take on far more weight once you know the destination.
Though he’s not given a huge amount of emotional depth to work with, Washington is a compelling lead, making up for the blank slate nature of the protagonist with sheer charisma and physical prowess. Pattinson, meanwhile, is having far more fun, all louche and bedraggled until he snaps into action. After impressing so much in so many indies, it’s a pleasure to have Pattinson back in blockbuster mode, taking things a bit easier and looking phenomenal in a series of magnificent suits.
Intricate design is at the core of much of Nolan’s work, but his art departments have really outdone themselves here. Everyone’s costumes are gorgeous, while the sets mix crisp, clean modernism with hulking Soviet brutalism to mesmerising effect. Like any good mega-budget spy film, Tenet takes us all over the world, from the highways of Estonia to Italian mansions and Indian skyscrapers, all lensed brilliantly by Hoyte van Hoytema. The sound work is less successful, Ludwig Goransson’s Hans Zimmer-aping score drowning out too much dialogue, while the disorienting crunch of bullets, waves, and machinery is far less effective here than it was in Dunkirk.
In a number of ways, Tenet feels like Nolan’s palate cleanser after Dunkirk, trading that masterpiece’s uncharacteristic briskness, relative simplicity, and perfectly judged sentimentality for something far colder and more labyrinthine. Though you do end up missing the more overt humanism of his previous work, in Tenet Nolan does, overall, have another triumph on his hands. It can’t save moviegoing on its own, but as an argument for why movies are simply better on the big screen, it’s pretty much unimpeachable.
Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring; John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Runtime: 150 mins