Few lines manage to explain the film you’re watching more clearly than the one Clémence Poésy‘s character says in an early scene from Tenet, Christopher Nolan‘s highly anticipated time-inverting blockbuster. “Don’t try to understand it,” she tells the film’s protagonist. “Feel it.” It’s almost as if Nolan himself wants to assure the audience that trying to crack the plot of his latest film will be nothing but a waste of time, and it’s the best advice this review can give prospective viewers of the film (whenever and however you choose to see it). If you stop to think about what you’re seeing, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s not that Tenet is difficult to understand in and of itself. Like Inception, the film is more convoluted than it is complex, building layers upon layers of exposition and grand set pieces to hide a very simple concept. And like Inception or The Prestige or Memento, Nolan is expecting the audience to want to experience Tenet multiple times in order to get the full picture of what he’s trying to accomplish, even if that concept may not be as deep or impressive as you’d hoped.
Make no mistake, Tenet is as ambitious and spectacular as the best of Nolan’s films, and in many ways it feels like a collection of his greatest tricks — incredible set pieces full of awe-inspiring practical effects, an elegant storytelling maze full of grand ideas, but also detached and cold characters, horrible treatment of female characters, and a lack of playfulness.
With Tenet, Nolan has concocted a very elaborate and expensive toy, but rather than letting the audience play with it, he keeps it at arm’s length and just tells you that you should admire his creation, without giving you time to figure out why you should.
The simplest way to explain the plot without giving anything away is that John David Washington plays a character literally credited “Protagonist,” a CIA operative who is tasked with finding the source of a new weapon that will be the cause of a third World War that will end all life on Earth. Armed with incredibly little information, he embarks on a globetrotting mission with a bunch of NPCs to stop the end of the world and rescue a princess from the big bad Russian.
Like Inception, Nolan is once again taking cues from the espionage genre. Instead of a heist film, he is now giving us the James Bond movie of his dreams, complete with shadowy organizations, car chases, weapons dealers, Russian oligarchs and world-ending stakes. It is when leaning into these influences that Tenet truly shines, becoming the biggest and fanciest Bond movie we all wanted for the summer blockbuster season.
The ace up the film’s sleeve is, unsurprisingly, is its “time inversion” concept, and Tenet‘s cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, together with the visual and special effects teams led by Andrew Jackson and Scott R. Fisher, respectively, help craft some astonishing set-pieces. No matter how many interviews (including Collider’s own!) you read about the lack of computer-rendered effects in Tenet, nothing can really prepare you for the pure, breathtaking spectacle of the film.
For the smaller, intimate fight scenes, the camera stays claustrophobically close to its subjects as they contort and recoil in a hand-to-hand fight where the assailant is moving backwards through time while the other moves forward. There’s also a high-speed moving-heist involving fire trucks, armored vehicles and tow trucks moving at high speeds, and a giant battle sequence with two armies fighting in different directions in time. Through it all, Tenet plays both as an incredibly convoluted math exercise and a fantastic display of showmanship. This is all accompanied by the frenetic and energizing electronic strings of Ludwig Göransson‘s original score, which at times sounds like a clock running backwards, a clever riff on Hans Zimmer‘s time-themed scores for Inception and Dunkirk.
The problem comes when the action stops and the film starts explaining how it all works, giving the audience clunky lines of exposition through cold and detached readings — as if the actors were nothing but soulless animatronics at a theme park. It doesn’t help that a big part of the dialogue is mumbled and drowned by the metallic sound design and loud score, or that key exposition scenes are shot with a rotating camera that disorients the viewer. It’s as if Nolan was so preoccupied with showing you that he did his homework for the “time inversion” (Nobel Prize-theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is a consultant on the film) that he forgets to show why you should care about the rest.
If Tenet feels like a collection of Nolan’s greatest cinematic tricks and hits, it is also a collection of his worst impulses, especially when it comes to muted and overly serious acting and his treatment of female characters. Though Nolan puts John David Washington’s athleticism to great use in the action sequences, he mutes the natural charisma that makes Washington a great actor. Elizabeth Debicki gets the short end of the stick as Nolan moves beyond killing his male characters’ wives to having his only main female character be nothing more than a damsel in distress. Debicki sells the pain of her character’s torment at the hands of her abusive husband, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), but she is devoid of any agency or personality beyond being a mother to a child we barely see in the film. She becomes inexplicably important to the Protagonist’s heroic journey, but it’s hard to see why due to their lack of chemistry.
Thankfully, you have to give it up for Robert Pattinson, who manages to break free and become the only source of personality and charisma in the film. Pattinson also has terrific chemistry with Washington, acting as his confident wingman and the source for the few moments of levity in the film, all while exuding enough confidence and swagger to put forth yet another strong case for his casting as Bruce Wayne. Likewise, you can see Branagh break free from his restrained acting directions and burst out in pits of rage worthy of his Shakespearean background.
For all of Tenet‘s stunning set-pieces, the film never manages to escape the lines spoken by Clémence Poésy’s character. “You’re not here for what, you’re here for how,” her character says, menacingly making sure that the audience will follow along silently and complacently, absorbing all the information without trying to understand it for themselves. In a way, The Prestige is the key to understanding not only Tenet, but Nolan himself. He assumes that Michael Caine‘s speech in The Prestige about not wanting to find the secret because all you want is to be fooled, is true for his audience. Those who want a bit more than face-value are left behind, unimpressed.
The worst thing that can be said about Tenet is that, in Nolan’s quest to save the cinematic experience, he has made a movie that will thrive in home viewing, where the viewer can rewind the scenes to better understand the tricky plot, or adjust the volume or use closed captions to hear the obfuscated dialogue. Alas, Tenet is 100% Christopher Nolan — for better and worse.
Tenet will be released internationally on August 26th and will open in select U.S. cities on September 3rd.
[Editor’s note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we strongly encourage individuals to check with the recommendations of public health officials and CDC safety guidelines before seeing a movie in a theater.]