It feels as if we’ve been in quarantine for years, yet Tenet somehow feels longer. There’s a possibility I’m still watching it, that I’ve descended into a dreamlike state where I seemingly continue on with life while, really, I’m in the theater, eyes glazed over and face mask damp with exhalation as good-looking men in suits (one of the only things Christopher Nolan incorporates into his films that I wholeheartedly endorse) walk around stunning locales describing in maddening detail what will soon happen onscreen—in glorious 70-millimeter, of course. Size does matter, after all.
Nolan’s latest, which he wrote as well as directed, is being pegged as either cinema’s salvation or a harbinger of catastrophe should you choose to see it in a theater. Accordingly, I was hoping it would be either surprisingly good or exceedingly bad—it’s neither. Having recently revisited some of Nolan’s earlier films, I’d say that describes most of his oeuvre, even the one film that seemed to me as impressive as anything Hollywood had to offer back when it first came out. I made a point of going to the theater for the recent rerelease of Inception (2010), also on 70-millimeter (Nolan’s preferred gauge), wondering if I’d recapture the magic of seeing it when it came out ten years ago and I was fresh out of college; I was disappointed that it didn’t. “That’s it?” I wondered to myself after what felt like the fifth hour of Leonardo DiCaprio squinting morosely toward Marion Cotillard. “This is the movie everyone was so crazy about?” The ideas and special effects were still immense, but the story revealed itself as sophomoric, another overly convoluted yarn that took forever to unravel. It would seem I’d grown up, so going into Tenet, I wondered if Nolan had, too.
Watching Nolan’s first film, Following (1998), it dawned on me that he hasn’t shed a certain film-school sensibility (even though, ironically, Nolan didn’t attend film school proper), opting to continue indulging his personal interests rather than building on them. In this regard, Tenet might be both his most Nolan-esque film and his most uninteresting one to date. It’s impressive, really, that something so deliberately labyrinthine, so defiantly loud (it’s virtually incomprehensible at times, supposedly by design), and packed to the brim with massive set piece after massive set piece, is, to put it simply, monotonous as hell.
John David Washington—a high point in this otherwise sluggish thriller—stars as the protagonist, called the Protagonist. (Groan.) After he passes an unspecified test involving a terrorist siege at the Kyiv Opera, Washington’s CIA operative is recruited to participate in something called Tenet, which, as explained by a scientist (Clémence Poésy), involves technology that can reverse an object’s entropy, and that’s being used by people in both the future and the present day in an attempt to destroy the world. How, I’m still not sure. I’ve now seen it twice and have read a few “What the Fuck is Tenet About?” articles, and I still don’t really get it.
At the center of this quantum cold war is Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), whose art-dealer wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, cool, calm, collected and tall), is trying to leave him. She fulfills the key role most female leads occupy in Nolan’s films, that of a wife and, as also here, a mother, whose importance is defined by the men around her. Kat’s narrative presence revolves around her young son, who keeps her tied to the abusive Sator. At least it’s not yet another dead wife.
Along the way, there’s Michael Caine (playing a British intelligence officer who makes sure the Protagonist is properly outfitted in a nice-looking suit; his is clearly the most important role), a Mumbai-based arms dealer (Dimple Kapadia, helping prove that women can be unscrupulous criminals too), a cool-as-ice fixer (Himesh Patel), the leader of a militia helping to prevent global reckoning (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and, most importantly, the Protagonist’s rakish sidekick, Neil (Robert Pattinson, surprisingly effective; his chemistry with Washington is one of the film’s highlights). The plot becomes more convoluted as it progresses, resulting in several long sequences where the Protagonist and company invert through time to solve various, knotty dilemmas, like saving Kat from being shot and preventing Andrei from ending the world by activating something called the Algorithm. All this is enabled to happen by temporal pincer movements, which sounds like a phrase that should have an entry on Urban Dictionary.
Nolan is the ultimate big ideas guy and, thus a consummate auteur, proof here that the controversial signifier doesn’t necessarily denote quality. There’s no doubt that Tenet is the result of a mammoth group effort—which features notable contributions by cinematographer (and regular Nolan collaborator) Hoyte van Hoytema, Swedish composer Ludwig Göransson (who wrote the throbbing score), and Jennifer Lame (who had the herculean task of editing this damn thing)—but their efforts are in service to Nolan’s grandiose fixations, from James Bond-style urbane refinement to generalities of time and space and whatnot. One has to admire that Nolan just goes for it with his no-holds-barred approach, which results here in the destruction of a jumbo jet for a plot thread that really doesn’t make sense. Perhaps in that way this is a movie for the moment: it doesn’t cohere, but neither does anything anymore. v