Yes, I finally got back to a cinema. It was a 10AM screening, four other people attended in a theatre that could have held thirty times that, they were ten metres away and my mask was kept securely on for the duration. I felt comfortable in the Lighthouse Cinema in such circumstances, but I’ll admit that there are only a few films that could have gotten me to head to a cinema in the present situation. Whatever about the man’s not too admirable behavior as of late, any film directed by Christopher Nolan is one that I will want to see. Even taking Interstellar, perhaps his film that I regard the least, it is still a movie whose ambition, cinematography and sense of craft is obvious and extremely admirable. And then there is the other end of the scale, with Dunkirk still safely ensconced in my all-time favourites.
And then there is Tenet. To say that the trailers were intriguing, yet baffling, would be to understate my reaction. Here was something that was clearly high-concept: perhaps too high-concept, even for the guy who managed to create something as mesmerising as Inception, or as intriguing as Memento. Tenet seemed like a film that was always going to live-or-die based on how well it could get across the basics of its premise, and then again based on how well that premise could be woven in to whatever story Nolan had to tell (details of which were worryingly absent from promotional materials). Did Nolan do it again, making another film competing for a place in my own viewing apogee? Or is this a step too far, a film where the director’s vision resulted in a “passion project” in the worst kind of way?
A CIA agent known only as “the Protagonist” (John David Washington) is recruited, after a botched operation in Ukraine, into “Tenet”: a secret organisation dedicated to preventing a future global catastrophe connected to “inverted” objects, that have had their entropy reversed so they now move backwards in time. In a globe-spanning adventure, the Protagonist teams with the mysterious operative Neil (Robert Pattinson) in an investigation of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), utilising Sator’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to get close to him, discover his connection to inverted objects, and stop a plot with world-threatening – or worse – implications.
The most important comment that I can make about Tenet, the one that must surely come before all others, is that it is one of the most genuinely confusing films I have ever seen. Tenet left me bewildered at times, with its science, with its structure and with its many unanswered questions. It is indeed a passion project gone a little bit mad, where the premise cannot be explained properly and where it cannot thus be married to the plot properly. And yet. It is a film whose ambition, sense of scale, cinematography, music, performances and gusto simply has to be admired. I liked Tenet, despite not really understanding its inherent nature. Only Nolan could pull that off.
There is a scene early on in this film where a character tries to explain the facts of the premise to the lead, the suitably named “Protagonist”. After a minute or two of talking about entropy, radiation treatments and how we perceive the flow of time, she simply gives up and says “Don’t try to understand it”. Nolan might as well have come on-screen and said this to the audience directly. But it’s kind of hard not to think too much about it. Tenet is not Time Cop, where the lack of depth in the material can justify the switching off of your brain. This is a film where the science of “inversion” is the beating heart of the film, the promise of the premise, the MacGuffin and the bad guy all in one.
Some films talk down to the audience, treat them like idiots, spell things out. Tenet has the opposite problem: it seems to assume that the audience all have Masters’ in Physics (like one character proudly proclaims as having), so they don’t need any hand-holding as we get into a film where a “temporal pincer movement” is vitally important, but one of the most confusing things ever put to film. It simply isn’t possible to get the exposition for this very high-concept idea into the film effectively, so Nolan doesn’t really try too hard. Some things, and some people, are going backwards, and you’re expected to just go with it.
But when the things and people going backwards are doing plot-pivotal things in the process, the hand-waving doesn’t suffice. The questions add up and up: how does someone grab an object travelling backwards in time if they themselves are not travelling backwards in time? How is Sator communicating with the future? Seriously, how do these temporal pincer movements work, in such a way that they aren’t a worse way to accomplish a goal then just a regular old pincer movement? Why does the “Algorithm” device need to be hidden, and not just destroyed? And those are just a few of my more pressing queries.
But despite this patently obvious flaw, Tenet’s story manages to rise above, with Nolan’s script doing much of that legwork. It’s a slick spy adventure with a sci-fi twist, that makes me want to see what Nolan could so with James Bond (he has expressed an interest: one day maybe). Despite the confusion that often occurs, it’s still well-paced, moving from quieter moments to major action set-pieces with aplomb, never staying in one place too long. John David Washington excels as the Protagonist, a character who moves from being a literally nameless blank canvas, but gradually forms into a conscientious, daring and always very engaging person. His globe-spanning back-and-forth takes us from places as varied as India and Oslo, and Tenet never loses sight of the main plot elements as it goes. The investigation of oligarch Sator, and the tension that arises from that and his demented relationship with estranged wife Kat, really gives Tenet some juice, similar to how the dream heist of Inception was further elevated by the Dom/Mal sub-plot.
Tenet is a film that is exploring many big ideas, beyond “What would happen if certain objects or people had their entropy reversed?”. I’m talking more down-to-earth, but quite interesting questions, like to what extent a character can be the driving force in their own story if they don’t have control over what is happening, or what is the natural endpoint for selfish megalomania when it is tied to reckless intent that skirts the bounds of suicidal ideation, or even something as simple as defining what is and what is not worth dying for. Nolan explores these ideas with skill that showcases his acumen as a screenwriter, far better than his failing efforts to get a layman like me to comprehend the nature of reversed entropy. This is spy sci-fi done right: It’s a twilight world in Tenet, and there are no friends at dusk.
Washington, acting as both audience surrogate and a confident secret agent figure, gives Tenet a grounding that is badly required in plot-terms. To wit, only a few actors could convincingly exchange dialogue that includes the term “temporal pincer movement”. Washington follows up on his breakout turn in BlacKkKlansman, exhibiting an ease of form with action, drama, and even a bit of comedy (an exchange with a racist maitre’d in a fancy restaurant might be some of Nolan’s best comedy dialogue since “Let’s not blow this out of proportion”). That leads to some really stand-out dialogue moments, such as when a leering Sator asks the Protagonist if he has slept with his wife yet, which draws the arch-cool response of “No. Well, not yet”. Sator’s response is to paint, in terrifying detail, what he intends to do with the Protagonist (it involves a knife, and a part of the anatomy it shouldn’t go near). The Protagonist may lack some of the more obvious drive of other Nolan leads, but by the end you will buy the actions of a man who has taken the safety of time itself on his shoulders.
If Washington firmly establishes his major motion picture bona fides here, with a great performance to match any of Nolan’s leading men, then Robert Pattinson is right along with him. With Tenet, any last lingering shreds of sparkly vampires must be cast from our memory. He and Washington seem to be a running battle to determine who would be the best choice to be the next Bond: if Washington is a Craig-type of 007, then Pattinson encapsulates an older, almost classic, kind of aloof spy-cool, that makes one easily think of a younger Connery, the kind of man who seems sort of delighted to be living the life he is living. He and Washington establish an easy camaraderie almost immediately, with Pattinson’s Neil matching him bit-for-bit, from high-stakes heists, to dialogue-heavy exposition scenes, and even into comedy (“Don’t be so dramatic” he says, when the Protagonist expresses disbelief at a plan to run a plane into a warehouse, then concedes, on the point of how big of a plane, “Well, that part may be a bit dramatic”).
Beyond them, the film revolves around the husband and wife pair of Elisabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh. Debicki’s prominence in the plot is a welcome thing, with Nolan rightly criticised at times for the subordinate role women often play in his films. Kat might not be the main character, but is as pivotal to the unfolding plot as any MacGuffin. Her nakedly maternal instinct calls back to some of the better character motivations of Inception and Interstellar, but from a female perspective that makes it appear fresh and new for Nolan. Debicki is, to use an old cliche, the beating heart of the film, and swings from tense back-and-forths with Washington to over-wrought stand-offs with Branagh very well.
Speaking of, I really did enjoy Branagh’s Sator. Nolan hasn’t actually written a full-on bad guy since The Dark Knight Rises, and while Sator’s inner motivations and overall plan could easily have you rolling your eyes when they are finally revealed, I felt that Nolan did the required grunt-work to make them land earlier in the film. I won’t get too much into the Faustian bargain at play, but when Sator reveals that he keeps Kat bound to him despite the obvious hatred for her husband because “If I can’t have you, no one can”, it is a subtle and effective lampshade for the very high stakes that are established later in the film. Branagh, an old pro who seems incapable of a bad performance at times, may not quite match the level of previous Nolan villains, but is a suitable Antagonist to match against our Protagonist: he exudes menace, and not just when carefully placing his cuff-links in his belt so it’s a more effective wife-beating tool.
The rest of the cast have less to do, but are all effective in their own way. Michael Caine clearly enjoys his one-scene cameo as a semi-retired “M” type who points the Protagonist in the right direction. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matt Damon-like, pops up in the second half in a critical role that was not largely advertised, and with some radical facial hair to boot. Dimple Kapadia works well as one of Tenet’s shadowy directors. Fiona Douriff, Himesh Patel and Clemence Poesy all excel in small but pivotal roles. When is the last time a character in a Nolan film gave a bad performance? Maybe he’s onto something about the lack of chairs on set…
You do have to mention the issue of the sound mixing, that has drawn a fair amount of commentary since Tenet’s release. Much like the oft-discussed problems with the intelligibility of Tom Hardy’s Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, I do feel that this is a bit of an overblown problem, one that is present for a handful of scenes: enough to be a distraction, but not enough that it should be considered an all-encompassing flaw. Those few scenes are odd though: one, set in an advanced sailing boat, sees seemingly critical dialogue exchanged to the sounds of the roaring ocean and mechanics of the vessel, and your ears will certainly be doing a bit of straining in such circumstances. Nolan seems to think that this kind of effect is required for full immersion in certain scenes, but that reasoning doesn’t really cut the mustard, in a film that is already starting from a negative position when it comes to what it needs the script to get across.
Naturally, Tenet is a wonder to look at. Hoyte van Hoytema is back again, the only man to have won three of my End Of Year Awards, and in with a good shout of winning a fourth on the basis of his work here. It might not be rich in colour – Nolan largely sticks to his traditionally subdued palette – but Tenet is a film that you simply can’t take your eyes off of. Whether it is in the dynamic way that Nolan captures certain locations for action scenes, like a Kiev Opera House or a Soviet “secret city” late on, or in the fantastical angles he finds to take in others, like a gravity-defying trek up the side of an Indian skyscraper, there is never a moment in Tenet when the locations have not been presented in a way that is either unique, or awe inspiring.
Not that this should be taken as meaning that the principals have been ignored. Here, Nolan actually does freshen things up a bit, with an unlikely influx of portrait style shots at critical moments, so that actors have the camera locked on their faces and get the chance to emote in way’s that Nolan casts may not have gotten to in the past. The murderous look in Branagh’s eye as he prepares to perform a violent act, or Washington’s desperation to take a suicide pill early on, are examples of things that Nolan seems at pains to try and capture this time around.
And then there is the more traditional action. Here is where Nolan and von Hoytema push the boat out. A film like this could settle on actually crashing an actual jumbo jet into an actual building. It could settle on an engaging car chase, or on an a special forces shoot-out that dominates the conclusion. All of those set-pieces are well carried off. But it is in the “inversion” that Tenet is going to draw the eye with its action. Several sequences either offer someone fighting an inverted person in reverse, two inverted people fighting in a non-inverted environment, or two non-inverted people fighting in an inverted environment. The effect is a mixture of confusing, off-putting and strangely hypnotic: for the first time in a while, I found myself watching a hand-to-hand fight between two characters and trying to pay a lot more attention to what was actually happening, right down to the minutia, since it was all presented in such a unique manner.
This certainly won’t work for a lot of people, and I did feel that, on occasion, it was a bit difficult to fully get a handle on what exactly was happening. Why is this car travelling backwards a big deal? Why is getting shot with an inverted bullet worse than getting shot with a regular one? Does fighting an inverted person make you inverted too, temporarily? It’s chaotic as hell, and often feels like an action version of the uncanny valley, but it’s impossible not to be taken with the ambitious streak Nolan demonstrates here, or with the choreography work at all levels, that must simply have been an enormous undertaking.
The score has always played a key role in Nolan’s films, and Hans Zimmer was unavailable for this one (looking forward to seeing what he can bring to Dune). Step forward Ludwig Goransson instead then, and he manages to craft something that, like the larger visual premise of the film, may not be to everyone’s taste, but is certainly something that is hard to forget after you hear it. It’s a unique experience all the way through, mixing the thrumming of electronica with traditional orchestra, inverting pieces and playing notes in strange orders, to match the reverse order that we are actually watching on screen.
The score grabs a hold of you in tense moments with booming, repeating chords, and makes you uneasy with some of the more inventive leitmotifs. Tones and throbs fade in and out in manner that is deeply unsettling, or are reversed. The music aids in creating the atmosphere that you are watching a story that is fundamentally wrong, creepy and unnatural in what it is presenting. Certainly Goransson has taken a few cues from Zimmer’s previous work with Nolan, most especially in the most recent Dunkirk, but that can probably be put down more to the director’s specification – ticking clocks and mechanical rhythms remain Nolan’s favourites – than to a lack of effort on the part of the composer. The ambition of the score, as with the film generally, must be applauded if nothing else. It’s wrapped up nicely by Travis Scott’s “The Plan”, a hip-hop/rap record that ties in effectively to the themes and motifs of the film and of the score.
Tenet is not Dunkirk, or Inception or The Dark Knight. It is not as good as those films, falling down significantly in the complexity of its plot and the extent to which it asks the audience to both engage with the science yet also ignore its fundamental unreality. But everything else about Tenet lifts it up from what could have been a dense morass of hard-to-fathom sci-fi. Its cast is, to a man, doing wonderful work. On a character level, the film works beautifully. It looks spectacular, and even when the visuals become married to the complexity of the premise, the aspirational nature of them excuses their other drawbacks. The soundtrack might be the best of the year, just for its sheer ingenuity.
This strikes me as a film where Nolan just could not pull back from some of his worse impulses, perhaps finally a bit too caught up in his own press. But the strength of the man’s vision, his words and his drive is obvious, and the end result is a movie that may be slotted into the lower end of the Nolan filmography, but which will comfortably settle into the role of one of 2020’s best films, an epic that is undercut only by its own aspiration. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros Pictures).