“Does your head hurt yet?”
Robert Pattinson could have asked this question at the five-minute mark of Tenet, rather than when he does at about three-quarters in, and it would still be a welcome check-in.
Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited espionage thriller Tenet makes the audience work hard. It’s a detective role we’ve come to relish in works from the director, and a welcome task for movie fans kept out of cinemas for five months during the pandemic. Though the spectacular action sequences herald a triumphant return to the big screen, this particular puzzle may leave some viewers frustrated, with Tenet holding back more answers than it provides.
Like its title, Tenet is a cinematic palindrome, moving backwards and forwards in a multitude of ways. As novel an idea as this is, the film essentially follows the conventions of a classic spy thriller. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but spices it up with time manipulation. You know the setup, if you’ve watched James Bond films: luxe location shoots, a highly-skilled, witty protagonist, a friendly sidekick, a crazed billionaire villain, extremely well-tailored suits.
It’s Nolan’s eleventh feature film following 2017 war epic Dunkirk, and his first foray into spy territory. “I grew up loving spy movies; it’s a really fun and exciting branch of fiction. But I didn’t want to do this type of film unless I felt I could bring something fresh to it,” he said in a press statement. “The simplest way to explain our approach is to say what we did with Inception for the heist genre is what Tenet attempts to bring to the spy movie genre.”
And he’s right, Tenet is not just a spy film, it’s a Nolan puzzle. The director’s long made smug sleuths of his audience, and Tenet’s no exception, but unlike Inception, there’s a towering amount of seemingly red herrings and bafflingly unexplained details in the film. And it’s all to do with that riskiest of cinematic devices: time.
Tenet is a cinematic palindrome, moving backwards and forwards in a multitude of ways.
Manipulation of time rarely goes perfectly on screen, however, Nolan’s been wildly successful at this in the past, his obsession with time running through his films like a trademark — Inception with staggered dream timing, Interstellar with wormholes, “time slippage” and interdimensional libraries, Memento in its entirety. Nothing is as it first appears, and people are constantly playing with time for their own survival. Somehow, Nolan manages to take something notoriously cliche and convince audiences of its potential real-world uses — Inception made an absolute masterpiece of the “it was all a dream” copout plot device.
Tenet doesn’t explore time travel as we’ve come to know it onscreen, more an “inversion” of it. The best explanation for how this works during the film comes from Clémence Poésy as Laura, a scientist and ally. Pay attention as much as you can to this scene, as you’ll need all this for later.
From the very first (literal) bang, Tenet lets fly with a flurry of information without context, communicated in coded language. Keeping track of events proves as perplexing for the viewer as it does the characters. But if you’ve seen Nolan’s other films, especially Inception, you’re across this layering of riddles in breadcrumb form, and reach a point where you just let the words wash over you, expecting things will become clear eventually. This doesn’t exactly happen though. After the literal turning point of the film, some details are solved, but many others are left ambiguous. And if they are explained, they’re muffled by the mixing of Ludwig Göransson’s booming score, so ever-present it takes on a character of its own. It could be my own EDM-ruined eardrums, but this dull throb erased conversations between characters. And you cannot miss a detail in this film.
Alongside time-related details, character motivations and the true nature of their connections are left lightly explained, which almost makes the film feel like the first in a series. Though leads John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki bring a level of solid integrity to their characters while wrapped up in flawless costumes, we’re left without any idea of who they actually are — there’s no time for that. With all energy invested in getting the film’s timing right, Tenet’s character development becomes token at best, reducing what could have been complex beings into well-worn tropes: the battle-worn soldier, the trusty sidekick, the mysteeeerious woman. Granted, Dimple Kapadia’s character Priya is given a little more complexity, but other characters like Himesh Patel as Mahir and Nolan fave Michael Caine as Sir Michael Crosby are wildly fleeting.
BlackKklansman star Washington takes the lead as the “Protagonist” who is tasked with a mission to prevent the world’s impending doom. Washington holds the film together with an understated intensity, relatively motive-less perseverance, and witty bemusement that renders him an excellent espionage lead. Pattinson takes on the cheerful sidekick agent Neil with overwhelming friendliness and spritely work ethic, making him the Rusty Ryan to Washington’s Danny Ocean. Ever the master of impactful subtlety, Debicki brings a cold ferocity and determination to the character of Kat, who is frustratingly given little room to exist outside her relationship, though it’s important to the plot.
All this said, if you’ve missed the cinema, Tenet — which premieres in theaters in the UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, and Russia on Aug. 26, and is set for release in the U.S. on Sep. 3 — is an absolute treat as a Movie Event, shot in 70 millimetre, 35 millimetre, and Imax film. If you’ve been swept away in all the details, you’ll at least find a satisfying anchor in the action scenes.
Tenet’s deployment of stupefying practical special effects is pure wizardry. You’ll see every last dollar of Nolan’s reportedly over $200 million dollar budget with each big action moment becoming a puzzle in itself, leaving the audience scrambling to figure out how the hell Nolan’s team did it. Wielding all Nolan’s best secret weapons including director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, Tenet’s big action scenes are nothing short of spectacular.
If you’ve spent hours trying to decode the ins and outs of timeplay, set that puzzle-work aside for wildly ambitious stunts and meticulously choreographed fight scenes, which are truly meant for the big screen. There’s even a conversation between Neil and the Protagonist about a certain stunt and how “dramatic” it all be — it’s like watching Nolan convincing his production team it’ll be worth it.
A Second Watch is practically mandatory in Nolan’s films nowadays, and Tenet is no exception, leaving this critic with many question marks about exactly who these characters are and how the timeline works. However, it’s the kind of film worthy of heralding a triumphant, unashamedly explosive return to cinemas, whenever that happens. I’ve seen the film in the UK, which is very much still in an only lightly lessened lockdown amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and where only a very select number of cinemas is open — going into these spaces is still a risk; at my theater, many precautions were put in place. But whenever you’re able to see it safely, know that Nolan’s first foray into the spy thriller is exactly what it promises: espionage-by-the-numbers with a bewilderingly complicated puzzle at its core.