In some ways, Tenet might seem like the movie that many Christopher Nolan detractors have been accusing him of making for his entire career. Filled with plenty of shiny clockwork machinations while also feeling a little hollow; a Rubik’s cube blockbuster that, while once solved reveals little besides a complex design, feels like a film more about the journey than the ends. Since transitioning into a career of Hollywood hit-making almost two-decades ago, Nolan has aimed to send both pulses and minds racing; even his Batman films brim with big ideas. Part of the genuine fun of many Nolan films is keeping pace with its byzantine plot and wrapping your head around its large concepts. With Tenet, he’s gone further than ever, dropping his audience in a labyrinth of his imagination; rarely is a film of this budget and scope so proudly difficult to follow.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Nolan would one day literally tackle the brain-bending logistics (or maybe anti-logistics) of time travel. Most of his films play with some form of structure and chronology in one way or another: shuffling it, running it backwards, expanding and contracting it like an accordion. In Tenet, the manipulation of time is baked right into the labyrinthine story, which hinges on the concept of “inversion” — the ability, as the film hastily half-clarifies, to reverse the temporal movement of objects, essentially rewinding their path through space and time. Early on in the movie, a well-dressed man steps up to a shooting gallery and, to his mild surprise, “catches” the bullet embedded on the other end, casually flipping the relationship between cause and effect. “Don’t try to understand it,” a scientist (Clémence Poésy) tells him. “Just feel it.” And that’s pretty wise advice, for both the man and the audience, though also a tad ironic coming from a film that one of its major points is the intricacy of its architecture.
The aforementioned well-dressed man is The Protagonist, a CIA agent played by John David Washington. Opening with a pounding, pulsating, incredible staged introductory set-piece that sees The Protagonist infiltrate a large SWAT team, plunge into a packed Kiev opera house as it falls prey to a terrorist heist, all to attempt to retrieve some asset. But it’s not before long when the mission goes bad and forces him into biting on a cyanide capsule. Except, he wakes to discover that he’s not dead but drafted into a secret organization intent on “saving the world from what might have been.” All the other characters in Tenet never really stop explaining the plot of Tenet to him. Nolan’s script is evasive and sketchy, both, somehow, piles on exposition but never fully spoon-feeds you. He hands every supporting character pace-halting pages upon pages of exposition: rules to reiterate, questions to proactively address, paradoxes to acknowledge but not resolve. Nolan once again roots his musings more in physics than philosophy or psychology, but Tenet is at its best when it stops telling us how it works, and starts showing us; morphing into the fanciest James Bond romp you ever did see, complete with dizzy globe-trotting, masterful car chases that slip and loop like spaghetti, and some incredible tailoring that’ll make you want to reach into the screen and stroke.
Soon charged with tracing the origins of the aforementioned inverted ammo, The Protagonist makes contact with a dapper fellow agent, Neil (a sly and charming Robert Pattinson). The pair’s operation leads, eventually, to the Russian oligarch Andrei Sator, played loud and often over-the-top by Kenneth Branagh — and to the best window of access to him, his glamorous, desperate wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Nolan, an admitted 007 fan, luxuriates in the aesthetic pleasures of his material: the aforementioned impeccable clothes (from costume designer Jeffery Kurland), towering buildings, tall women, sleek cars, cool gadgets, swanky restaurants with kitchens perfect for knocking around goons, lots and lots of boats. With Ludwig Göransson’s thunderous score, Tenet doesn’t ever skimp on the spectacle: a jetliner blasts through a hangar like an oversized battering ram, a wrecked car flips backwards in motion during a highway chase, buildings explode and reverse back together, etc. With help from cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s oily, rich gloss, Nolan has progressively grown as a confident conductor of IMAX-scaled mayhem, and both of their work in Tenet comes with plenty of assured grandness.
With Tenet Nolan has also found a new model of secret agent cool. Washington plays his nameless hero as both suave and commonly, feeling his way through a “twilight world” of science-fiction espionage, rolling with punches both literal and less so. Still, as his archetypal moniker suggests, The Protagonist isn’t much of a character; taking everything in stride and lacking the obsessions and traumas that define many of Nolan’s more compelling men of action, he’s just the primary moving gear in a story that reduces almost everyone to machine parts. Debicki’s Kat is the attempted emotional through line; as a woman trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage to a supervillain, she’s the only one granted a recognizable human stake in this exercise in style and high concept. The real star, though, is, of course, Nolan himself; presenting a twisty and often downright confusing ouroboros of a narrative (with Jennifer Lamb’s overall mixed-bag editing hitting shocking polarities in quality). This is one of those time-travel yarns that doubles back on itself to fill in holes and solve mysteries. And there can be a buzzy pleasure to that kind of closed-loop cleverness — it’s a variation, in some sense, on the way Nolan rearranged the chapters of his magnificent dueling-magician drama The Prestige to dazzle us with revelations. Yet as magic tricks go, Tenet could use more misdirection: Since there’s nothing here but gleaming spectacle and the machinations of the complicated plot, one can (and, for me, largely did) quickly guess the general shape of Nolan’s palindromic structure, even as actually grasping what’s going on from scene to scene becomes an exercise in futility.
In its final stretch, Tenet throws everything on-screen. The last act, in which soldiers race toward and backward in time to acquire an algorithm that’s just a glorified MacGuffin, finds Nolan going as far as color-coding his armored extras, just so we can theoretically tell at a glance which are normal and which are inverted. The chutzpah is heapingly admirable: Is there another filmmaker alive who could secure this much money to make something this baffling? Until now, audiences have risen to the challenge set by his uncommonly heady popcorn entertainment, making enormous hits out of the knotty, Russian-doll calculus of Inception and Dunkirk. But Tenet feels like the farthest he’s ever gone — from its stubborn, almost sadistic elusiveness, but also because he’s offered no greater payoff to the mental labor required than the satisfaction of having strenuously made sense of it. Tenet is at its strongest when its a sensory experience; it’s at its worst when its lulling one-on-one exposition; in a way, once solved, it’s like a Rolex that just sits there ticking away on a nightstand endlessly. But, in the end, I found the former outweighing the latter. An elegantly visceral, often confounding puzzle box, Tenet can often feel like a hollow maze, but its grand, imaginative, palindromic spectacle steadily make it an intriguingly delirious ride.
Tenet will be released in Select Theaters and Drive-ins on September 4th