“Does your head hurt yet?” asks Robert Pattinson’s debonair British agent Neil at one point in Tenet. The answer is, inevitably: yes. This movie revels in its whirlwind of complications, daring its audience to get their heads around its high concept, while simultaneously delivering a massive big-screen wallop.
Yes, this certainly feels like writer-director Christopher Nolan reveling in a huge budget and the unforeseen honor of being the first tentpole to grace theaters since they reopened. It’s fitting that Tenet has been delayed numerous times by the pandemic—much of the story is about the precariousness and flexibility of time. The theme is, of course, “inversion”: a method of reversing the flow of time that’s being used for nefarious purpose by those in the present and, implicitly, future.
An agent known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) is recruited into a top-secret mission to prevent WWIII. His training involves a briefing from a Q-style scientist (Clémence Poésy) that is surprisingly dull, but perhaps that’s because we’ve all seen the trailer. Over a brief lunch at a snooty members’ club, he’s then given a more gratifying gift by British Intelligence officer Sir Michael Crosby (Sir Michael Caine): a limitless credit card. Sharp suited and posing as a billionaire, our hero must work with Pattinson’s Neil and get close to a ruthless, staggeringly rich arms dealer, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). This is where things take a further swerve towards James Bond territory. Sator can only be reached, apparently, through his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who works in the art world. One fake Goya and a few close shaves later, the Protagonist is globe-trotting with world-class criminals and trying to confirm their connection to inversion crimes of the past/present/future, and prevent a disaster of the highest order—with Neil helping out quite considerably behind the scenes.
At this stage, Tenet feels like a hybrid between a classic action-packed Bond movie and a time-twisting sci-fi, and if neither genre sits very comfortably with the other, perhaps it isn’t meant to. While he is an extremely capable agent, our hero is feeling his way, trying to learn on the job, and we are scratching our heads along with him. Despite the distraction of the luxury yachts, the glamorous trappings, the spectacular action set pieces, there’s a niggling question of “WTF?” throughout Tenet. It’s a question that will either engage audiences, or not. The heavily expository dialogue may not win over popcorn audiences, but fans of Nolan should relish the chance to decode it over multiple viewings. Not a glimpse of detail or a line of dialogue is wasted—like a spy, it’s on you to keep your eyes and ears open and pick up the many clues as they come thick and fast. Despite the 2 1/2-hour running time, there’s no good time to take a restroom break, unless you’d prefer to miss the sight of Branagh topless.
A heavily accented Branagh is on the verge of pastiche as a typical old-school Bond baddie, while Debicki is supremely elegant but, disappointingly, cast as a perpetual victim—she’s frequently restrained either physically, emotionally or both. She’s also subjected to a serious dose of mansplaining on more than one occasion. An implied attraction between her and the Protagonist is just that.
Despite a slightly frustrating lack of backstory, Washington is very impressive in the lead role. His everyman quality serves him well, and he’s as good in the fast-paced action scenes as he is bonding with Pattinson’s Neil, who brings a light, genteel touch: These two could both compete to play rather different James Bonds. Their tentative bromance is arguably the warmest part of Tenet—it’s not a particularly emotional film, despite the fact that there is a potential apocalypse looming. Other supporting characters fare well and sometimes surprise, but to say more would constitute a spoiler, something that must of course be avoided at all costs when it comes to a Nolan puzzler.
True to form, the director resists the urge to attempt comedy more than a handful of times, though there are a couple of smiles when Caine enters the picture, and Washington makes decent work of the odd, halfhearted one-liner. It would have been easy to add a few Bond-style double entendres, but on balance, this movie is better off without it.
In terms of Nolan’s body of work, Tenet’s closest relation is probably Inception, though its themes touch on some of the same territory as Interstellar and Memento, without matching either their brilliance or their intimacy. Other classic sci-fis that spring to mind include the Terminator series and Looper, both films that seem to talk about time shifts more than they actually show them. There’s even a plutonium plot line, but this is no Back to the Future. There are certainly more thrilling, more mainstream films for a time travel fan than Tenet, but as we are reminded, inversion is not, strictly, time travel. And in many ways, this film is not mainstream: despite its blockbuster trappings it might be Nolan’s most ambitious, willfully perplexing film in recent years—it certainly doesn’t have the wide appeal that made Dunkirk a global hit with generations of moviegoers.
In short, this is chiefly one for those numerous and ardent Nolan fans. It may be hard to find Tenet’s dense sci-fi concept truly exciting on first viewing—frankly, there is so much else going on demanding your attention. But it is easy to sit back and revel in the wonder of the big-screen experience, and to immediately want to see the film again. And again. Those who love the challenge set by a complex audio visual puzzle will be well served—and with little else major to compete at the box office, time is on their side.