Tenet, at this rate the only blockbuster that is going to be released in 2020, was given the mission to save cinema from coronovirus. Match that with the near religious regard Christopher Nolan is held in by fans of cinema, and you had a major cinematic event on your hand. Is Tenet the second coming of cinema? Well of course not. But it is an enjoyable, if frustratingly tricksy, film shot on a jaw-dropping scale. If you ever had any doubt about whether Nolan grew up watching Kubrick intermixed with James Bond, this film dispels it.
Our entry point in the story is an unnamed character – he calls himself The Protagonist of the operation – played by John David Washington. A CIA agent, left critically injured after an operation at the Kiev Opera, is recruited to work for a mysterious organisation, Tenet. He discovers that Tenet is dedicated to preserving mankind in a war that is taking place across time. The tools of this war are “inverted” bullets and other materials. These bullets both backwards through time – explosions reform and bullets return to the guns that fired them. The Protagonist discovers that the inversion bullets are being funnelled through arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). Sator is working with a faction from the future, planning to invert time in order to save their world from destruction. Sator also has access to machines that can invert people, allowing them to move physically backwards through time giving him huge advantages in forging his empire and in collecting the components of a time-inverting super weapon that will destroy all life in our present and past.
Confused? Well as characters frequently say throughout the film – don’t think about it too much. I’ve seen Nolan’s epic twice. It’s a film that revolves around Temporal Pincer Movements – military tactics that use normal and inverted people moving backwards through time. The “forward” team lives through the events. The “Inverted” team move backwards, seeing events from the end backwards, supplying real-time information to the forward team. Those carrying out a Temporal Pincer Movement know the exact timeline of what is to happen and are therefore almost unbeatable.
Watching the film twice, I realise it places the viewer in the same position. First time I was lost in the maze of the film’s rushed explanations, hand-waved time mechanics and confused by working out who was inverted and who wasn’t at any one time. Watching the film a second time, knowing the plot, I did a Temporal Pincer Movement on it myself – my “past self” who knew basically how the film ended, helped my second viewing self to understand what was happening.
So you’ve kinda got to watch it twice to understand it properly. Or at least to begin to. Second time around you also know which details are important and which to ignore, which explanations are crucial to its understanding and which are not. Second time around I noticed a lot more how characters, such as Clémence Poésy’s scientist, who introduces inversion, stress “don’t think about it too much”. The science of it all is basically a red-herring. There is talk of various predestination and grandfather paradoxes (as you might expect in a world where the future is plotting to destroy the past). Again, second time around I realised: don’t worry about it too much.
So the question is, will people rush to see the film a second time around to understand it better? I’m not entirely sure they will. And I think that’s because, unlike Nolan’s other films, Tenet lacks heart. Here’s a man who has been praised for the ingenuity of his films going a little too far. Look back at Nolan’s other films and underneath the trickery and “timey-wimey” there is a core of a beating human heart. Inception and Interstellar, at heart, are about a man trying to reunite with his children. Memento, a man mourning the loss of his wife. Dunkirk, frightened young men trying to get home. In Tenet, there is none of this. It’s literally a film about time-scheneanigans with a huge Macguffin at the middle that will wipe out the world. The Protagonist is just what who he seems, a character who (engagingly played as he is by John David Washington, very good) we feel so little connection with that you could easily not notice we don’t learn his name.
It’s this lack of heart that really weighs the film down. How much can we really care in the end about a world-ending Macguffin so briefly explained, we just take it on trust that it’s bad? Tenet is burdened by Nolan’s slightly-too-pleased-with-itself cleverness, as events are played and replayed from multiple angles throughout the film, in a way that demands repeat viewings rather than giving the first-time viewer more knowledge in each scene. If you fall for this sort of thing, then you will fall hard. But, Nolan’s other mega-hits charmed viewers because they cared about the characters at its heart, not the elaborate tricks about time and memory. We wanted to see DiCaprio find his kids, we wanted those boys on the beach to get home – and people were happy to let other things wash over them slightly, because the emotion was how they interpreted the story. Without that heart, the film is a massive, showy trick – and a bit empty as a result.
Which isn’t to say that Nolan doesn’t shoot the hell out of it, or that the scope of it isn’t incredible. It’s where his Bond influence comes in. Because while half the time, he’s paying homage to Kubrick’s mastery and precision – or wonderfully, with its early scene of objects moving backwards and thick rubber gloves, Cocteau’s Orphée – the other half is straight out of Roger Moore. Massive bases. Huge car chases. Big shoot-outs. A Russian villain who could have walked out of Spectre and straight into the film. Flemingesque touches with the hero infiltrating the villain’s world, taking part in a sport with him. A woman at the middle who has a foot in the camps of both hero and villain. This is all Moore-era Bond, repackaged with a sprinkling of PhD Physics.
If there is a heart in the film, its Elizabeth Debicki’s abused wife of Kenneth Branagh’s lip-smacking villain. The film’s most effective character scenes revolve around this pair, and the destructive, possessive ‘love’ of Branagh’s Sator, a man must possess or destroy a person. The film captures neatly the perverted “love” Sator claims to have for a woman he abuses, beats and terrifies – and Debicki beautifully captures the mix of shame, hate and fear people in such situations often feel. Nolan must have enjoyed BBC’s The Night Manager, as Debicki repackages her role from that film almost exactly, but given the most emotional and heartfelt plotline in the film, she becomes the one character you really care about and invest in. A better film might have put her even more front and centre.
Instead though, the action around time dominates, with Nolan’s brilliantly mounted action scenes that mix forward and backward motion with staggering (and seamless) effect. It’s yet another reason to see the movie twice. The film is big, loud and demanding – often too loud, with dialogue frequently drowned out (a problem you notice less second time around when you have a much better idea about when to concentrate and when to look away). The cast do terrific work. Washington is very assured as the lead, playing with wit and grace. Debicki is a stand-out. Robert Pattinson brings a quirk and originality to a role that has very little to it on paper. Branagh has been more controversial for his Bond-tinged Russian baddie, but I found a chilling horror in his domestic abuse and selfishness that works extremely well (again particularly second time around). Pattinson brings a playfulness to an underwritten role.
Tenet may not rework cinema – and I doubt it would make a top five list of Nolan’s best films – it’s bold and challenging, if a little cold and heartless. While demanding a double viewing, it’s not quite clear if it will make you long to see it again too quickly. But if you take the effort to do so, you will find a film that grows on you more with repeated viewing – and reveals its deliberately impenetrable mysteries much better.