During the first hour of Tenet, you’re going to feel like you need to be Stephen Hawking’s brain on steroids just to have some idea of what’s going on. Fortunately, it all comes together in the end. (At least, I think it does!) Writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Tenet makes The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky seem like a Dick and Jane book.
John David Washington plays a government agent so secret he doesn’t even have a name—he refers to himself obliquely as “The Protagonist.” After a strange, surprising rescue assignment in Kyiv, TP finds himself on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III. Of course, it all starts with a bullet. But this isn’t any bullet—it flies backward when fired. The secret agent is summarily inducted into the mysteries of “inversion,” a process by which any object, even a person, can have its molecules reversed, making it appear as if it is reeling backward while the rest of the world forges ahead. (Yes, the word “tenet” is a palindrome for a reason.)
TP soon hooks up with a British fighter and a physicist, Neil (a sly Robert Pattinson), and an enigmatic Mumbai arms dealer, Priya (a regal Dimple Kapadia), to foil the world-ending, depraved Ukrainian jet-setter, Andrei (a mustache-twirling Kenneth Branagh). As if TP doesn’t have enough trouble, he winds up falling in love with the villain’s battered wife, high-end art dealer, Kat (an icy Elizabeth Debicki). And those are just the interpersonal relationships—you might want to get a degree in quantum mechanics before trying to comprehend the rest of the plot.
Fortunately, the complexity does not drain the enjoyment. Tenet is a fun ride! The obligatory car chase, taking place in the past, and the future simultaneously is worth the price of admission alone. It’s like Tetris meets The French Connection, only better. The action sequences become even more mind-blowing by the fact that Nolan used no greenscreen and very little CG.
There’s more than just the motorway mayhem—Tenet is full of huge, elaborate set pieces and stunning stunts. Tenet proves once again that Nolan is one of the great auteurs of our time. If you are partial to his plays on time and space in his other sci-fi works (Inception, Interstellar, The Prestige – my personal favorite), you’re bound to like this too.
The actors and the filmmaking are topnotch, of course. Washington is very well cast and makes for a believable cerebral James Bond substitute. (And yes, there’s a Q and there’s a Blofeld.) The frantic globetrotting—Italy, Estonia, India, Norway, Britain, and America—adds to the urgency of the espionage. Editor Jennifer Lame juggles the confusing cuts and seamlessly sets them in place, while cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema makes everything from skin tones to skyscrapers look fantastic. Ludwig Goransson’s rumbling, heart-thumping score stirs the suspense.
There are a few winks (Sir Michael Caine’s cool cameo) and a couple of chuckles, but for the most part, Tenet is a deadly-serious spy thriller. While I do stand by my statements above that it’s fun, and it’s enjoyable, it does, at times, feel too smart and too smug. Tenet stimulates the senses, but it doesn’t grab the emotions.
Tenet may be little more than Nolan’s braingasm, but it is the spectacle we were promised and is certainly worth a look on the big screen if at all possible (IMAX preferred).