No filmmaker revels in confusion more than Christopher Nolan. It started with his breakout film, Memento, in which a man with no short-term memory tries to find out who killed his wife, and continued in such brain-twisters as The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. Even his more straightforward films, like The Dark Knight trilogy and Dunkirk, took approaches that few others would try with comic book and war movies, respectively.
All of that is to say that if you thought you were used to Nolan’s perplexing stories, Tenet has them all beat. Normally for a highly-anticipated movie like this, I’d do my best not to reveal any kind of spoilers in my plot description. In this case, it is literally impossible to explain almost anything that happens because Nolan apparently doesn’t want us to understand it.
What can be said is that John David Washington plays The Protagonist — no, really, that’s his character’s name as listed on IMDb, and he states as such on multiple occasions in the film. He is some kind of combination of spy and soldier who gets wrapped up in an international conspiracy led by Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) that could bring about the end of the world if The Protagonist isn’t successful in his mission.
Now, what that mission entails and how he goes about doing it, I haven’t the slightest idea. The film is so densely packed with dialogue and changing locations that to keep up is an exercise in futility. And that’s even before you get to the actual mind-melting part of the plot, which involves time. Not time travel, mind you, or at least not how it’s been used in previous time travel movies. The very idea of time comes into question, and to say that it’s baffling is the understatement of the year.
The story has the basic mechanics of a James Bond movie: The hero, aided by Neil (Robert Pattinson), a jack-of-all-trades, is trying to stop a Russian megalomaniac at all costs, especially when the Russian’s beautiful wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), comes into play. Beyond that, only Nolan truly knows the kind of story he intended to tell. At times it feels as if he’s making things up as he goes, claiming that they fit with the rest of the movie merely because the same characters continue to show up.
Now, there will be those who will say that the confusion is the point, that it’s the type of movie that shouldn’t be understood on first viewing, or even the second. To that I say: How does that translate into something good? It’s fine to make a movie confusing, as Nolan did with Inception, but that film was balanced with its massively entertaining and eye-popping action sequences.
Tenet has some of those, most notably when they crash a real 747 plane into a building, but they are few and far between. More importantly, the scenes leading up to the action are so difficult to comprehend that the subsequent action comes off as just random combat for the sake of having something exciting to look at. Nolan plays with time so that some parts of the film run in reverse, but more often than not those parts feel like someone playing around with a film technique instead of making some grand impressive point.
Still, the film (screened for critics in Nolan’s preferred IMAX format) is as visually stunning as we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker. Nolan may be one of the last directors influential enough to be able to film on location in countries like Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, India, and more. The grandeur of their landscapes is something that can’t be created in a computer, and Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema capture them in all their glory.
In just a few short years, Washington has gone from the “son of Denzel” to a full-fledged star in his own right, and he controls nearly every moment of this film, even if you don’t know what his character is doing. Pattinson, soon to be the envy of fanboys as Batman, is smooth and interesting in a smaller role. Debicki isn’t given enough to do to show off her talent, and Branagh hams it up in the villain role.
Nolan was right to wait for theaters to reopen to show off the visuals of Tenet the way they should be seen. However, his seeming obsession with making his films as complex as humanly possible is frustrating for those of us who would like at least a scintilla of clarity in our storytelling.
Tenet is now playing in theaters.