You could argue that Tenet, the brain-teasing new blockbuster-to-be from agent provocateur Christopher Nolan, doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. Actually it’s doing both — and the director-screenwriter is challenging us to try and keep up. It’s as if an African-American James Bond, in the person of the sharply bespoke-suited spymaster played by John David Washington, found himself among the mindhunters of Nolan’s 2010 Inception. He’s a filmmaker who has been screwing around with our ideas about time since his 2001 breakthrough Memento — even his 2017 war epic Dunkirk asked us see the same event from interlocking, rewinding-and-fast–forwarding perspectives. In his latest, a sci-fi thriller whose action globe-trots across three continents and seven countries, Nolan’s tick-tock obsession hits a fever pitch.
Tenet — yes, the title is indeed a palindrome — is the first big-budget studio movie (it’s production budget tops $200 million) to open in actual theaters, including IMAX, in the Covid-wraped year of 2020. (Having already opened abroad, it arrives in the U.S. on September 3rd.) If anything can put movie junkies back in their multiplex seats — masked, of course, and safely distanced — this groundbreaker is the one to do it. The first visual knockout Nolan puts before us takes place at an opera house in Kiev, where a packed audience (remember those?) awaits the show. Meanwhile, secret agents donning eerily timely PPE are gassing the crowd through venue’s air vents, so they can make off with an asset. The white-knuckle tension of the scene is raised to the upper reaches of suspense by the vibrant, vertiginous camerawork of Hoyte van Hoytema, who’s no stranger to this type of spectacle; he put in his Bond-movie time back in 2015 with Spectre.
Everything that can go wrong does, as one of the attackers, played by Washington, is unmasked as a CIA infiltrator. “We live in a twilight world,” he announces before he’s tied to railway tracks to meet his fate. Thanks to our man’s ingenuity and his facility with spy code, he escapes. Who, exactly, is this paragon who remains unnamed during the film’s pulse-pounding two-and-a-half hours? “I am the Protagonist,” he says, in a line that will leave you either meta-baffled or laughing out loud. It’s a Nolan thing. Those who find this filmmaker, born in London to a British father and an American mother, too chilly and cerebral aren’t paying attention. Listen, if you want dumb and deadly, try Michael Bay.
Nolan’s mischievous streak gives Tenet a rich vein of humor that covers the bumps in the plot — and one of those bumps involves physics. You might need to brush up on your science to get a handle on the speculative process of inversion, in which an object or a person can have their entropy reversed, thus moving backwards in space while others move forward. This isn’t Bill and Ted climbing into a phone booth to hang with Mozart and Jimi Hendrix, it’s the future issuing a warning to the present. A scientist, played by Clémence Poésy as the Q to Washington’s 007, tells him understanding is overrated. “Feel it,” she suggests. Easy for her to say. “Trust the man behind the curtain” would be better advice, since the director stuffs his movie with the “detritus of the coming war” and plenty else to unpack after multiple viewings.
In a (mostly) spoiler-free outline: The film’s title refers to a shadowy organization meant to save the world from “something worse” than Armageddon. The Protagonist teams up with Neil (a slyly funny Robert Pattinson) to get to Russian oligarch Andrei Sator — the rare Tenet character with a first and last name — who’s entertainingly hammed into existence by Kenneth Branagh as a Trump/Putin hybrid of unleashed megalomania. Our hero takes his lumps to find and stop this demi-god, which allows star-in-the-making Washington (Black KkKlansman, Ballers) to strut his stuff in high style. (Dig those suits!) A former football running back, the actor brings a natural athletic grace to the stunts and hand-to-hand combat that forge a visceral bond between his character and the audience. The film itself becomes a series of dazzling distractions as the Protagonist zigs and zags toward his goal.
But what distractions! The Protagonist’s early fist fight in a corridor (shades of Inception) is action choreography at its muscular best, backwards and forwards. He and Neil don’t just visit Mumbai to get info on Sator from the mysterious, heavily-guarded Priya (Hindu acting legend Dimple Kapadia); they bungie up the side of her high-rise hidout. Cheers to stunt coordinator George Cottle and Nolan’s insistence on avoiding green screens and CGI whenever possible in order to bring an urgent reality to inventive feats of imagination. From a double catamaran race off the Amalfi coast and the ultimate in freeway car chases to a 747 crashing (and uncrashing) into an airport hangar, the visuals in Tenet are spectacular in every sense of the word.
On the personal front, the movie pivots on the relationship between the Protagonist and Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), the wife of the abusive, controlling Sator, who fails to realize the sexual pyrotechnics between these two exist only in his diseased mind. Her husband’s hold on Kat is their young son, and he’s offered to free Kat from her personal living hell if she gives custody of the child to him. The fact that Kat once momentarily considered the opportunity only deepens and humanizes the character. The elegant, swan-like Debicki, so fine in Widows and the TV miniseries The Night Manager, refuses let her Hitchcock-blonde get-ups play the role for her. Kat’s haunted eyes tell a resonant story about the arduous work required to take the high ground. The same goes for spy-in-shining-armor counterpart and the titular organization’s once and future soldiers.
If virtue was easy it wouldn’t be compelling or real. It’s that theme that pervades Tenet — and most of Nolan’s work — as the forces of time, memory and morality bedevil characters. (Including Bruce Wayne in Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, which imagined a batman who struggles to remain a crusader even without a cape.) The filmmaker has often been accused of inuldging in glib nilhilism, and the figures on this particular checkboard may lack backstories and the luxury of full development. But their struggle to connect to their better angels remains urgently relatable. Set to the throb of a galvanizing score by Ludwig Göransson, Tenet sweeps you away on waves of pure, ravishing cinema. At its core, however, is the question of if anyone can save a world out of balance. Nolan has tasked himself with saving the idea of movies as an in-person, in-theater experience where viewers gather before the biggest screen possible in a union of hearts and minds. There’s a killer plague betting against him. It’s your call.