A CIA agent (John David Washington) undertakes a dangerous mission to uncover the truth behind a terrifying technology that threatens the existence of the human race; a technology that manipulates the flow of time. Aided by his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), our hero undertakes a series of increasingly dangerous stunts to try and secure mankind’s future and past.
There has been talk for a long time of Christopher Nolan directing a bond film. Tenet almost feels like an audition for Bond. We have a suave secret agent travelling the world, getting into trouble in exotic locations, a troubled love interest who is initially a means for our hero to get close to the villain but becomes something more, we have a villain with a sketchy accent and a diabolical scheme to end the world, there’s an opening intrigue involving an art forgery that serves as a gateway to the larger plot, even the set pieces echo various bond action sequences. Perhaps then Tenet is Nolan revealing why he could not make a bond film, because he’d rather make Tenet. I am thankful for this, because I do believe he’s the only man who could.
The central concept here is Time Inversion. It’s the idea that certain people or objects may be moving backwards through time whilst everything around them moves forwards. To those people or objects everything else appears to be moving backwards. And so an inverted gun is still deadly, but the bullets head towards it instead of away from it. Characters in the film are able to move backwards through time and then invert again to be travelling forwards again. Think of it like being inside of Primer’s box, only out of the box. We are encouraged early on to just roll with this idea, and for the most part it does seem to be following it’s own logic.
This idea is communicated to the audience fairly efficiently in an excellent early sequence with Clemence Poesy. Much harder to communicate is the wider conspiracy and intrigue around this technology. We never find out who invented the dream machines in Inception but we do get into the story behind the time inversion, as well as some of the unseen parties who have an interest in it’s use. We also have our antagonist and his intentions and a few other groups who may or may not be working against each other. Explaining all of this, mostly through expository dialogue, is probably the biggest issue I have with Tenet.
However two things typically happen to me during a Christopher Nolan film. The first is that I become very invested in the personal stakes of our hero. Whether it’s Cobb’s battle with grief in Inception, or Cooper’s race to return to his daughter in Interstellar, I have always found Nolan’s films to have a very personal and relatable stake at it’s centre. The second thing that happens is that I become absolutely exhilarated by the concept. Whether it’s entering someone’s subconscious or travelling to potential new home worlds, there’s a point where I become giddy at the potential of the film and am never disappointed.
Both of these things happened to me whilst watching Tenet but far later in the runtime than in previous Nolan films. In fact by the film’s half way point I was still unconvinced by Tenet. However the film is top heavy with exposition and once out of the way it allows itself to have a lot more fun with the brilliant concept and gives us some real drama to be invested in. Only it’s not our hero at the heart of this drama, but instead Elizabeth Debecki’s Kat who is struggling with an abusive partner and fears for her son’s safety. Debecki is the emotional backbone of this film and does an excellent job of reminding you why all of this is important.
Performers in a Nolan film often need to get you on board quickly and without too much small talk or back story. Not whilst there’s important exposition to be delivered. As usual Nolan has picked his people well. John David Washington is an excellent audience surrogate and a very charismatic lead. Robert Pattinson is a combination of Tom Hardy’s Eames and Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Arthur from Inception. He does an excellent job of being at once top of the class and too cool for school. His back and forth with Washington offers much needed levity and warmth to the film. But a film is only as good as it’s villain and Kenneth Branagh is pure Blofeld. As the Russian Oligarch with a financial and personal interest in Armageddon he is sublime.
Nolan has acknowledged that he needs good actors in his film to deliver his often corny dialogue with conviction. My personal favourite is from inception; “His subconscious has been militarised!” but there are some belters in Tenet as well, including “the future is attacking us!” and “they’re using a temporal pincer movement!”. Never let it be said that Nolan films aren’t without their own very special kind of camp.
But speaking of camp, perhaps I wanted to see the concept go further. Nolan does not like to push his concepts too far. If we’re going into dream worlds it will not look like Paprika, and this time inversion will not be allowed to become too convoluted or out there. We will revisit scenes from earlier in the film and see them from new perspectives and we will see people fight each other whilst travelling in opposite directions through time and it will be absolutely fantastic. But it’ll never get too crazy or become large enough to lose the audience’s investment in it. Some may see this as a weakness but I’m always glad that Nolan grounds his films in verisimilitude.
The action sequences of this film pose a bit of a problem for me. Nolan has not abandoned the shaky cam of his early days and the messy editing is still here too. Yet I cannot deny that I loved the action of Tenet. It goes against so many of my beliefs regarding decent action but there’s a pacing and impact to the character’s movements that forces you to fill in the gaps in the most brutal possible ways. This is aided by the larger scale setpieces that have Nolan’s characteristic IMAX scale and clarity. This includes a very satisfying time manipulated explosion of a tower and of course the plane crash featured prominently in the film’s marketing.
But is there deeper meaning here? For all the fun and ins and outs of the plot and premise, is anything big being interrogated about the world and the human condition? Nolan’s films are often epic in every sense and that includes the scale of it’s themes. Once Tenet is stripped of it’s labyrinthine plot and time travel mechanics, what is Tenet about? Free will gets a mention but isn’t really an issue for our main character. I’m sure I shall gain different reads from subsequent viewings but Tenet is most apparently about power and cost. Our protagonist is confronted regularly with what he is willing to do to save the world, and his subsequent time travelling is ultimately an attempt to escape the cost of his actions. All time travel movies are really about wanting to gain the upper hand on the world. To escape consequence by travelling back before action. This is particularly evident in the motives of the unseen antagonists in the film. Perhaps Tenet is urging us not to look to change the past to save our future.
Tenet is perhaps the most pure example of a Christopher Nolan film yet. All of his incredible strengths and frustrating weaknesses are on display. But I know the future. I gave this film five stars before I started typing. I’m travelling backwards through this review that only seems forwards from your perspective. How can I justify giving full marks to a film when I could easily argue myself down to four and maybe even a three. Because reviews are not scientific. I can’t sit here and count up the pros and cons, subtract one from the other and decide how much a film is worth to me. I absolutely loved my experience of watching Tenet. Even the things that pushed me away or felt awkward seemed to me like puzzles to be solved. If Tenet charms you, you will relish the chance to dig deeper, if you are left cold then you will feel like this film was made to spite you. Perhaps Tenet shall therefore prove divisive, but I am thrilled that we have a film maker making divisive films at such a high level. This is Mission Impossible thrills with Primer level intellect. It has courage, brains and, perhaps on my next viewing, I’ll get more of the heart.