There is no question that Christopher Nolan is one of our most inventive filmmakers, a man who pulls off magic tricks and crafts dream worlds and made us believe that Matthew McConaughey, that glorious stoner we all adore for his goofiness, was a genius engineer who could travel through space-time. This deep in his filmography, you know a Nolan film: elaborate set pieces, intricate plots, and a sort of suave masculinity that feels like the British response to Michael Mann’s “handsome men in suits with guns” subgenre of cinema. Tom Hardy smoothly telling us to “dream a little bigger, darling” feels like Nolan’s manifesto at this point—a sustained attempt to push us a little further than we might normally go.
But even given all that—even knowing everything about Nolan that we know—Tenet feels like a caricature. A film as defined by its astonishing stunts and fight choreography as by its superficial characters, barely any of whom develop past paper-thin characterizations (for fuck’s sake, the protagonist’s name is the Protagonist), Tenet is Nolan’s coldest, most clinical, most emotionally unaffecting film. It is gorgeous to look at and impossible to penetrate, a movie so enamored with itself that it never bothers to let anyone else in.
Let me try my best to explain this plot without giving anything away, although I must admit that the audio mix for Tenet is so astonishingly awful that I only captured about 40% of the dialogue. WHY DOES NOLAN KEEP PUTTING HIS CHARACTERS IN MASKS THAT MUFFLE THEIR DIALOGUE? GODDAMN, DUDE. This has been a recurring Nolan problem (there were gigantic chunks of The Dark Knight Rises and Dunkirk during which I could not, for the life of me, understand anything being said onscreen), but those films’ narrative machinations did not rely on audience investment as much as Tenet. Bane was bad. The war was bad. Those are easy enough concepts to comprehend! But Tenet is so unbelievably convoluted that you need to understand what the characters are saying to each other, and there is no such luck here, at least not in IMAX. Ludwig Göransson’s score is the film’s most vibrant element, and it is gloriously bone-shaking, as was his work for Creed and Black Panther. But there is a profound disconnect between the amped-up nature of this score and the film’s muted, mumbling dialogue, where the former will leave you enthusiastically wrung-out and the latter makes you wonder why John David Washington can’t raise his voice.
Tenet focuses on Washington’s character, the Protagonist, who is recruited by a secret organization named Tenet. His CIA training has made him a perfect operative—analytically minded, fiercely loyal, able to withstand torture and beat up a group of Russian thugs sent his way—and he’s tasked here with tracking down who might be trying to destroy the world. The only problem is that those antagonists seem to be working from the future, sending back items that are “inverted”; a scientist (Clémence Poésy) tells him some stuff about reversing entropy, and maybe the quantum physics of this plot check out, but I did not grasp them. I am not that smart! But the Protagonist is suddenly able to catch bullets backward, and he has to figure out who is producing these weapons, and why our descendants want to kill us, and he starts hopping around the globe to find out.
First up is Mumbai, where the Protagonist picks up a local, Neil (Robert Pattinson, having a grand old time and giving this movie the jolt of energy it needs), who always seems to know a little bit more than the Protagonist does about the mission. Then to London, where the Protagonist starts tracking the bad guy who is at the heart of all this, Anglo-Russian petrol oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, hilariously awful). To reach Andrei, the Protagonist tries to work through his estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, whose sole traits here are “mother” and “tall”), who is yearning for her own revenge against her abusive husband. What comes after that is a sort of hopscotch through the playgrounds of the rich—yachts, private art safe havens, exclusive restaurants, jaunts into Vietnam and Estonia—as the Protagonist tries to figure out, and stop, what Andrei is up to.
So much of the plot of Tenet relies on concepts that, frankly, seem surprisingly traditional for Nolan—an embrace of establishment authority that acts like shorthand for character development. The conflict with the future is described as a “cold war,” and of course the villain is Russian and the hero is CIA. Nolan heard our complaints about his films being full of dead wives and gave us an abused wife instead—what a conciliation! Washington feels stifled, as if he was told that to portray leadership, he had to tamp down all natural charisma he has; the Protagonist is not an intriguing character. Only Pattinson and supporting player Himesh Patel, cast here in the Eames role, look like they’re having fun; my new fetish is a rakishly haired Pattinson, wearing a bulletproof vest, counting down to the start of a particularly risky plan. Give me that Val Kilmer in Heat energy! Debicki and Branagh have zero chemistry, never once selling a relationship that could have existed between them, and Branagh’s performance gave me flashbacks to his ineffectual work as the Russian baddie in the Chris Pine Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Branagh is not at all threatening, and it’s difficult to take him seriously as a villain as a result. Without that oppositional force, the narrative often feels unmoored, and the life-or-death stakes never seem quite real. Tenet doesn’t build an all-encompassing world, like Inception, or fully articulate our dire end of days, as did Interstellar. There’s no impact here.
The only delight of Tenet is the film’s stunt work and production design, which lacks the wacky, self-aware thrill of, say, the most recent Mission: Impossible movies, but is graceful nevertheless. The Protagonist and Neil bungee jump onto the side of a building and then run up the side of it, like they’re floating in air. A car chase plays out forward in linear time, then partially backward, and then flips again, so we watch someone going backward in a way that seems like they’re going forward. (It makes sense in the movie, sort of!) Yes, Nolan actually crashes a real 747, and yes, it’s pretty dope. There are an array of visual tricks that will make you reconsider what you just saw, like a fistfight that keeps changing perspectives and a climactic final battle that puts a time-inventive spin on classic military strategy. The latter is the closest thing Tenet has to that grand horizon-folding-in-on-itself moment in Inception, the most defining moment in Nolan’s filmography.
But these amazing set pieces, while respectable for their reliance on practical effects and impressive for Nolan’s zealous commitment to his craft, often feel divorced from everything else. When they’re over, we still have to return to the rest of Tenet: a needlessly complicated, disappointingly familiar story about the end of the world, whose grand ambitions are dragged down by catastrophic miscasts, indistinguishable dialogue, and an emotional vacuum at its center.
Tenet opened in international markets on August 26. The film will open in the U.S., where theaters are open, on September 3.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a socially distanced press screening.
Image sources (in order of posting): Warner Bros. MediaPass, Warner Bros. MediaPass, Warner Bros. MediaPass