TENET is many things. It’s probably the most straightforward film that Christopher Nolan has made since INSOMNIA. It’s a visual treat, utilizing state of the art technology with classic cinema tricks to create a wholly believable vision of the future. It is also needlessly convoluted (which is not the same as complicated), and a little too satisfied with itself. It’s peak Nolan, for better and for worse.
John David Washington plays The Protagonist (sigh), a suave, snarky secret agent working for a nameless organization with silly and counterproductive methods of communication. As a routine operation goes awry, Washington finds himself in the hands of yet another nameless, shapeless, and seemingly boundless group literally fighting against time, who provide him with a single word: Tenet. That word will open doors, behind which await only more questions and an ocean of exposition.
This is a film that is ambitious to a fault. There isn’t a single aspect of the script that Nolan doesn’t try to put his own personal spin on, and while that kind of creative madness is admirable, it also comes with diminishing returns. Take for example the much advertised “inversion” that the trailers keep repeating. It’s just time travel with an added flourish. There’s even a time machine. Everything works on the same logical level as a time travel film would, meaning you either go with it or the whole thing breaks down.
But Nolan doesn’t want to call it time travel because once you accept the rules of that genre the entire picture begins to fall apart. There certainly are moments in the film that speak of a much more ambitious thriller, one that – when it works – is unlike anything you’ve seen before, but is also an unfinished thought for the most part. Almost like a stream of consciousness story, TENET is at its best when it’s throwing ideas about, and at its worst when those ideas are discarded for new ones in the very next scene. (Pay attention, for example, just how long the titular word and gesture stick around in the story.)
Other times famous character actors will appear only to deliver the next clue or piece of exposition, but they rarely make an impact otherwise. Michael Caine makes a brief but delightful cameo, while Clemence Poesy is relegated to delivering what amounts to a gameplay tutorial for Washington before disappearing entirely.
Nolan devotees will naturally argue that there are multiple levels that need to be appreciated to understand the big picture, and they’re right. But not necessarily because it’s a deep or complex film with nuance or grandiose themes. It’s complicated because the script is all over the place, and many of the big set pieces are explained to the audience with a whiteboard and marker. Characters will start scenes by saying “as you know” as they then proceed to explain that which their listener supposedly already knows.
All of that is fine, by the way. It’s been fine ever since time travel became a favorite trope of storytellers to mess with their readers. But there’s a level of tongue-in-cheek that has to go with these plots, otherwise they just feel dire and self-important. Which is something that TENET can’t help but succumb to multiple times. The action is fun and wacky, including a truly spectacular chase sequence through Tallinn, but it’s weighed down by a portentous mood that can’t let go of its own self-importance. LOOPER, the Rian Johnson directed thriller from 2012, subverted this trope by having characters acknowledge the inherently contrived nature of time travel to great success.
There are moments in TENET that are so impactful and visionary they could only be experienced in cinema.
If all this sounds very negative, it’s not intentional. It’s simply a byproduct of Nolan being a supremely gifted filmmaker with vision to spare. There are moments in TENET that are so impactful and visionary they could only be experienced in cinema. Sequences so daring and so beautiful you can only wonder why they haven’t been done before, and how they were thought up now. A reverse bungee jump into a heavily fortified building could be the climax to a lesser film, while here it’s merely a light sojourn between bigger things. Which is why watching it stumble on its own ambition is twice as painful, because you can feel that just a little bit of holding back would have made all the difference.
But consider that proposition; actually telling a filmmaker to not shoot for the stars and do everything in their power to deliver something grandiose and ambitious. How insane that feels! And yet there is a level to TENET that feels like it should be more restrained. As it stands it’s both a spy thriller and a time travel film; a cerebral heist movie and a James Bond pastiche. It’s funny and charming thanks to Robert Pattinson and Washington delivering the best odd couple pairing in years, but also a moody, explosively violent and ugly family drama. One where Kenneth Branagh delivers a chilling and horrifying monster for the ages.
There’s also promise of far greater adventures and a world beyond this one, almost as if Nolan was consciously setting up a franchise. But apart from his Dark Knight trilogy, he’s never been one to return to a story once he’s finished with it, even as fans have been clamoring for a sequel to INCEPTION for years.
On a purely meta level there’s also an uncomfortable feeling watching people live a life of opulence when the world is in its current state. This is a 200 million dollar production and it looks like every penny of it is on screen. Shot in no less than 7 countries, TENET is a globetrotting adventure unlike any other. Planes are crashed, buildings are toppled, and every costume, set, and car is the most exquisite you could imagine. It’s Nolan’s James Bond fantasy writ large, as if to rub it in the faces of the Broccoli’s, who famously denied him the chance to direct the iconic franchise.
It even delivers the two best Bond replacements for Daniel Craig we’ve ever had in Washington and Pattinson, who both light up the screen as utterly charismatic leading men.
TENET is a film that does nothing new, but everything it does is presented in a way we’ve never seen before.
Does any of this make TENET a lesser film? Well, no, not really. But it also doesn’t make it a better one. It’s a conflicted and contradictory film by its nature, one that I can see dividing audiences right down the middle. There will be those who’ll rejoice in seeing something truly epic in scope on the big screen, especially in a year that’s devoid of such joys on this scale. Others will deride the film for its clinical script that trades its best emotional moments for Wikipedia-esque explanations of concepts that it doesn’t particularly seem to care about.
And both sides would be entirely right. TENET is a film that does nothing new, but everything it does it presents in a way that we’ve never seen before. It’s a magic trick you already know, produced with vision possessed by only a rare few.
It will be discussed, dissected, argued, celebrated, and hated for years to come. Even more so than INCEPTION, it’s a portrait of the man who made it, and that alone should be worthy of praise.
It’s the kind of work of art that makes ratings feel useless. A five star experience, even if it isn’t a five star film.