Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” worth watching

Sep 3, 2020,10:00am EDT

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Is A Superb Spy Flick, To Be Enjoyed With Or Without The Metaphysics

Christopher OrrContributorArtsI cover film, television, and culture.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson discuss their plans in Christopher Nolan's 'Tenet.″
John David Washington (right) plays a nameless operative and Robert Pattinson his slightly louche … [+] WARNER BROS.

For months, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, the mysterious action-thriller Tenet, has borne a unique cultural burden: In this pandemic era, it is the film tasked with “saving Hollywood”—or, more specifically, theatrical moviegoing. So it is no small irony that in the movie’s bravura opening scene, Nolan blows up a theater.

Now, yes, technically it is an opera house rather than a multiplex. But speaking as someone who was attending my first in-theater movie experience in more than six months, it felt as though Nolan was sending a message from across time, which is apt, given the premise of the film.

Before I get into that premise, a depressing caveat: I was lucky enough to see Tenet with half a dozen other people, all masked, in a theater that normally seats almost 400. I recommend the film as an in-theater experience, but only if you are confident you can do so safely. Please check your options with care: Tenet is a terrific movie, but not nearly terrific enough—if there even were such a thing—to risk COVID over. (Here’s where I wish I could employ Chris Evans to do one of his Captain America PSAs from Spider-Man: Homecoming.)Recommended For You

But back to our story: After being involved in the opening raid on the Ukrainian National Opera House—both the purpose of the raid and his particular role in it remain somewhat opaque—our protagonist, conveniently identified only as “the protagonist” (John David Washington), finds himself in that uniquely convenient spy-role of someone who is believed to be dead, but is actually still available for duty. Indeed, at its core, Tenet—the title is a code word given to the protagonist and, for reasons that will become clear, a palindrome—is an exceptionally well-made spy flick in which the customary apocalyptic MacGuffin is simply more high-concept than usual. “Nuclear holocaust?” our protagonist asks the scientist (Clémence Poésy) who gives him his first lesson. “No,” she replies, “something worse.” And she’s not talking about some silly space-based laser.

Kenneth Branagh plays a villainous Russian arms dealer in 'Tenet.'
Kenneth Branagh doesn’t break new ground as a villainous Russian arms dealer in ‘Tenet,’ but he … [+] WARNER BROS.

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Bullets have been showing up that are “inverted”—which is to say, they move backward through time: Put your hand over one as if to “drop” it, and it jumps into your palm; pull your trigger, and the bullet’s point of impact vanishes as it lodges back in the gun’s chamber. “You’re not shooting the bullet,” the scientist explains, “you’re catching it.” No one knows how these bullets are made, because they are literally coming to us from the future. And it’s not just bullets. Before long, “inverted” cars and more will make appearances in the film.

I’ll withhold judgment on this time-inversion ordinance as a plot device until I’ve had a second viewing. But color me skeptical: The most obvious time-travel elements on display here, mostly in the final third of the film, are at once familiar and modestly befuddling. On the other hand, as an opportunity for some highly inventive action sequences, the premise is a canny one. A car chase involving a backward-driving car that is actually (from its perspective) driving away from you after having already done to you whatever (from your perspective) it is still going to do is at the very least a novel entertainment.

Although often lumped together, Nolan’s “puzzle” movies really fall into two distinct categories. Memento and Dunkirk are straightforward tales, devoid of science fiction, that are built on ingenious narrative architecture related to their respective themes. (It is no coincidence that they are also Nolan’s two best films.) Interstellar, Inception, and The Prestige, by contrast, are about time dilation and dream invasions and duplicating selves: Their complexity is less a means to a narrative or emotional end than the end itself.

Like these latter Nolan films, Tenet is essentially designed to be overthought. This will no doubt bring rewards to both true obsessives and more modest enthusiasts. (As noted, I’m looking forward to a second viewing.) But I suspect that for many if not most viewers, the best way to enjoy Tenet is as a truly top-flight James Bond movie, with Bond himself removed and that exceptionally complex MacGuffin inserted.

Elizabeth Debicki plays the villain's unhappy wife in 'Tenet.'
Elizabeth Debicki again excels as a beautiful woman trapped by a powerful man. WARNER BROS.

It’s all there: The glamorous European locales and signature set pieces (who knew a catamaran race could be so exhilarating?); the slightly louche allied agent (a delightful Robert Pattinson, visibly enjoying himself); the cat and mouse with a villainous Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh, who breaks no new ground in the role but builds a sturdy performance nonetheless); the attempted rescue of his beautiful, beleaguered wife (Elizabeth Debicki, playing a variation on the role she’s been perfecting in The Night ManagerWidows, and The Burnt Orange Heresy). This being a Christopher Nolan film, Michael Caine even makes a brief appearance as a senior intelligence officer known, naturally, as “Sir Michael.” Who needs anything more from a big summer movie?

So if you can see Tenet safely, give it a shot. And whether you see the film now or months from now, recognize you have a choice: To wrestle with its metaphysics, or simply to enjoy it as a flat-out superb action movie. Just because Nolan wants you to invert yourself in time and travel back into the theater for a second viewing doesn’t mean it’s required.Follow me on TwitterChristopher Orr

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