Tenet feels like the second film in a series of alternate universe Bond films (the first obviously being Inception), where Christopher Nolan takes the more popular elements of the spy genre he loves oh so much and transmogrifies it through the prism of his own obsession with time and space. It’s a dizzying array of deep ideas and time stomping spectacle that will leave some breathless, others incensed and many simply going along for the ride.
Following a large scale hostage situation, CIA operative, The Protagonist (John David Washington) is recruited into the ultra secret organisation of Tenet to help fight a cold war not waged with the threat of nuclear annihilation but with the tool of inversion – essentially the ability to reverse the time of an object. I’m severely oversimplifying it because I myself am still trying to wrap my head around the idea. His recruitment puts him on a journey where he’s joined by operative Neil (a very Nolan looking Robert Pattinson) as they attempt to track down the Russian oligarch Sator (Kenneth Brannagh) who’s placed himself at the centre of a war waged between the past and the future.
Tenet sits very firmly into the category of “you’ll pretzel your brain if you think about it too much”. It’s a movie that, the more you prod at certain elements the more questions you walk away with. And it feels like that’s exactly how Nolan wants it, forcing the more intrepid viewers to come back for a second and third viewing for the specific need to scratch the itch of the unanswered. Indeed, there’s so much information and such heavy exposition that attempting to keep all the elements square in your mind is an almost impossible feat for a first go round. While that might sound tedious to some, Nolan infuses the film with his tried and true use of spectacle and cinematic grandiosity that multiple viewings are almost a must (even more so in IMAX).
For much of its 150 minute runtime, I couldn’t escape the idea that I was watching one filmmaker attempt to wrestle with and indulge in their own deep fascination with time. And it’s in that idea that makes Tenet feel like a big budget experimental film. From Memento to Inception to Interstellar to Dunkirk, time (and its effects on us all) has very much been a driving force behind Nolan’s creative spirit. But with Tenet he pushes that fascination almost to the point where nothing else matters to him. It’s as if he had this film in his back pocket for much of his career and the aforementioned films were just a warm up to him.
Much has already been written about how certain elements of the film have been lacking, mainly character development and emotional stakes, which is something I can’t really deny. But it also feels like it’s by design. From The Protagonist to Neil to the cliche riddled Sator, the majority of the characters are almost exclusively there to do nothing but drive the plot forward. The one who gets the lion share of the emotional meat of the film is Elizabeth Debicki who does a superb job of portraying a complex woman being held captive by the near personification of nihilism.
Tenet is like a riddle that refuses to be solved, but gives you enough of Nolan’s cinematic extravaganza that solving it no longer becomes a priority. As Clemence Poesy’s character puts it, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”