‘Tenet’ Review: Nolan Goes for Broke With This Temporal Spy Thriller

'Tenet' sees Nolan at his most stylish and cerebral.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Every Christopher Nolan film is about time. Racing against it, bargaining for more of it; time is elusive in Dunkirk, elastic in Inception, an antagonist and salvation in Interstellar. His films often function like Möbius strips: beginning at the ending, ending at the beginning; the same is true on a metatextual level. His films, though singular in concept, are not built from new ideas. They are steeped in cinematic history, taking pieces of tired genres (superhero, heist, war) and refurbishing them, locating the future of filmmaking in their antiquity.

Never has this been more apparent than with Tenet, Nolan’s delayed, then delayed again, modern myth of a blockbuster. It’s his most forward-looking film, pushing the envelope on how the form functions, but also the one most steeped in the director’s past. Nolan’s heritage as a British expat is all over Tenet; it’s equal parts Doctor Who and James Bond. His trademark cerebral concepts abound; this is his most ambitious work to date. But this is also a spy movie and one that has no interest in pushing against the conventions of its genre. This ying-yang dynamic makes Tenet a fascinating object. It’s actively reinventing the grammar of visual storytelling while delivering a story so familiar that when Kenneth Branagh’s villainous private arms dealer Andrei Stor says (in a hammy Russian accent) he means to destroy the world, all you can say is: “well, of course he does.”

Tenet’s opening is equally familiar. John David Washington, a deep-cover US operative, is midway through a mission to stop a terrorist attack on the Kiev opera house when his cover is blown. Taken captive, he swallows a cyanide capsule (standard operating procedure). He dies, and then he wakes up. “Welcome to the afterlife”, greets a G-man (Martin Donovan). Washington’s character, who is annoyingly only referred to as “The Protagonist”, is told he’s the latest recruit in a cold war that’s “colder than cold”. Is the threat nuclear? asks The Protagonist. Worse, says the G-man. It’s temporal.

People from the future have started sending weapons back through time. Well, not exactly back through time — Nolan himself will be quick to tell you Tenet is not a time travel film per se. These weapons are “inverted,” meaning their linearity is reversed, which is theoretically possible. These weapons are dangerous on their own — unshooting an inverted bullet through someone traveling forward through time will kill them and leave no evidence to boot — but that’s nothing compared to the real threat: people from the future have sent back the inversion/reversion technology, allowing people in the present to make use of it. Now, an inverted weapon, once arrived, can be reverted to normal time, and the unexploded bomb can explode. Naturally, the technology has fallen into the hands of Stor. The Protagonist must race against time (inverted and otherwise) to stop him before he can revert the weapons and end the world. 

If your head is already spinning, there’s bad news: Nolan is only just getting started. As the film unfurls, the not-time-travel only gets denser, and the explanations fewer and farther between; imagine Inception without Ellen Page’s audience surrogate character asking questions. Making Tenet a by-the-numbers spy thriller proves to be the smartest decision in an almost-too-smart-for-its-audience film. Whenever the high-minded science-fiction elements threaten to overwhelm, easily digestible spy thriller stuff is there to offset them. We may not understand what motivates The Protagonist’s mysterious accomplice, Neil (a show-stealing Robert Pattison), but we do understand his archetype. He’s the Felix Lighter to The Protagonist’s Bond, the aid with ulterior motives. Stor’s art-appraising wife, Kate (Elizabeth Debiki in top form) is the Bond girl, albeit more in the vein of Vespa Lynd than Pussy Galore, and far less than helpless than either. She wants to escape her marriage, to protect herself and their son, and that desire becomes the key to stopping Stor.

The combination of spy and science-fiction also proves a good match for Nolan’s visual sensibilities. During action sequences, Tenet reads as a more honed Inception, a fight between The Protagonist and an inverted combatant playing like an update on the iconic hotel hallway set piece. The aesthetics are especially locked-in; Hoyte van Hoytema shoots in gorgeous cold tones and works hard to keep the film visually understandable — even when the action is at its most complicated, sequences still make sense on a kinetic level.

For all of Tenet that is ramped-up, it is, at its heart a straightforward story about a group of people who will do anything to save the world. Tenet marries headiness with earnestness. It is not unlike Doctor Who in that regard, although operating on a completely different budget. Neil, especially in some moments, is a sonic screwdriver away from just being The Doctor. Further similarities emerge in the depiction of Stor, who’s evil is enormous, but possesses a political undercurrent. A megalomaniac billionaire with a god complex is hardly subtle; nor is his using futuristic tech to destroy the world.

Nolan’s come a long way from the Wall Street fist-waving of The Dark Knight Rises. His films have become more complicated and audacious, but his worldview has calcified. Tenet, like so much of Nolan’s post-2010 output, holds to his belief that love is good, and selfishness is evil, and the tenacity to choose between the two is the most valuable power we have. The dual movement between narrative complexity and moral simplicity is inherent to Tenet’s design just as its two-way street approach to time is. Nolan proves again his talent is in convergent forces, reconciling opposites and proving them palindromic, and making it all spectacular to behold.

Joshua Sorensen

Josh is an editor at Flip Screen. Films starring Holly Hunter are to him what lamps are to David Byrne.

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