Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Available on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Vudu
Rated PG-13, 150 minutes
Christopher Nolan’s films aren’t stories so much as they’re elaborate premises brought to their logical extremes. What if we had the technology to interact with our dreams? See “Inception.” What if Batman’s Gotham was beset not by campy goons but rather by corrupt politicians and brutal mobsters? Nolan’s got a whole trilogy for that. This premise-first-story-second style is captivating—Nolan always gives us our money’s worth—but with “Tenet,” his latest mind-bending, action-heavy original, his technical ambitions have finally eclipsed his storytelling completely. This is the uber-Nolan film, dense with plot and circumstance and setup and payoff, irresistibly flashy yet ignorant of human feeling, like a well-tailored suit you never find an occasion to wear.
From left: Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington, and Robert Pattinson in a scene from “Tenet.” (Courtesy photo)
The thriller kicks off when the unnamed protagonist (John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”) discovers an arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, “Dunkirk”), who possesses the technology to alter time and space. It’s not time travel, per se, but rather an inversion; one moment you’re moving forward with the current of time, and the next you’re moving against it. Using this technology (and with help from his future self), the ruthless Sator inverts objects and people to achieve his nefarious ends. The protagonist, himself recruited by a shadow organization to stop Sator, teams up with the mysterious agent Neil (Robert Pattinson, “The Lighthouse”) to travel the globe, doing whatever must be done to prevent Sator’s ambitions from destroying the world.
The movie’s two and a half hours are full of exposition, Nolan’s flat characters talking only of plans and logistics. In one scene, we simply watch a military briefing. In the movie’s lone joke, the protagonist quips, “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago,” before he fights several henchmen in a restaurant kitchen. The line was apparently ad-libbed. In his script, Christopher Nolan either didn’t think to give his characters personalities or decided it was superfluous.
What human emotion the movie does acknowledge comes in the form of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, “Widows”), Sator’s wife, longing for divorce but obliged to remain under Sator’s thumb for fear of being separated from her son. Her devotion to her child borders on caricature; in one scene, after Neil explains that Sator’s actions will result in the instant and total destruction of “everyone and everything that’s ever lived,” Kat weakly adds, “Including my son,” as if we needed reminding that her child is her raison d’être. But Debicki’s stolid demeanor and prim manners defy any expectation of maudlin theatrics, and she gradually opens up not just to save her son, but also to secure her own self-liberation. Her clothing changes with her, becoming more loose and flowing as she embraces the very entropy that other forces in the movie attempt to stifle or reverse.
Nolan fills the movie with symbolism like this, totemic objects that exist somewhere between a plot device and a motif. At the center of the intrigue are nine oddly shaped metal objects that supposedly hold the keys to the end of the world, but “Tenet” also plays with reds and blues and secret phrases and palindromes. Even if we don’t know what to make of them, they leave their ineffable impressions like afterimages. In one scene, the same building is blown up in real time and in reverse, a demolition we somehow watch forwards and backwards all at once. Even when we can’t easily comprehend the images before us, we give in to their striking composition and the sheer breadth of their scale.
It would be nice, of course, if the movie were easier to follow, if the converging timelines and inversions didn’t leave us lost in the dust so often. “Tenet” warrants a second viewing, and maybe more, if only to grasp what has actually taken place on the screen. But the strength of “Tenet” is that those extra viewings aren’t necessary. We understand just enough to get by, unbothered by the individual parts that make up the indelible whole. “Don’t try to understand it,” says a scientist in an early scene, explaining time inversions to the protagonist. “Just feel it.” Her words are also an instruction to the viewer, a simple lesson to take each moment as it comes. In his most impersonal and complicated movie yet, Christopher Nolan has somehow come as close as he ever has to speaking plainly..
Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.