What time is it?
It’s an often asked question that usually elicits a clear and simple answer. Not in Christopher Nolan’s movies. The answers in his movies are complicated, often maddening, and frequently grandly entertaining. We’ve seen it in Memento, Inception, and Interstellar with the latter being a mixed bag and the first two being pretty great. His latest is Tenet and it definitely falls more into the maddening territory with big and loud moments of thrills. You may wish you had a physics degree during it, but this is mostly an excuse for Nolan to play in the super spy genre with a bunch of quantum related gobbledygook thrown in. The director’s most ardent admirers may study it endlessly for Easter eggs and clues as to its true meaning. Upon first watch, I’m not so sure Tenet is worth the scrutiny. Yet there’s some car chases and battle scenes played to Nigel Tufnel levels of volume that land pleasingly on screens big and small. Weird science and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of action set pieces… this is Nolan’s rap and he frequently goes to eleven in this one.
John David Washington is (rather annoyingly) known only as The Protagonist. Let’s call him “Pro” for the duration of this review. A government agent who proves his bonafides to his superiors, he’s allowed into a secret organization known as the picture’s title. Pro’s new assignment tasks him with preventing something “worse” than nuclear holocaust in one example of some clunky dialogue. This is where the physics lessons are useful. You see, Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is hellbent on destroying the past and future through the concept of “inversion”. Essentially this means playing with time travel concepts that can wipe out what occurred before or after. I’m not sure Doc Brown could properly provide sufficient exposition without multiple viewings and neither can Pro or his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson). You may want to look up “temporal pincer movements” before you watch.
In addition to Pro’s teaming with Neil, his mission to stop Sator also involves the villain’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). She’s quite good here and she’s really the only heroic figure that’s written with any layers. Washington and Pattinson are just fine, though their characters are quite dull on the page and screen. For Branagh, this is his chance to ham it up in true Bond baddie style and he relishes it. We have also get a bit of Michael Caine (common for a Nolan experience) and internationally known Hindi actress Dimple Kapadia as an arms trafficker.
Tenet does feature the aforementioned action set pieces that are impressive in scope and tech wizardry. The director doesn’t handle these sequences with half measures. If the scene calls for a 747 to be demolished, you best believe that plane was actually destroyed. The inversion concept lends to eye candy moments with backwards cars screeching on the highway and seagulls (!) even flying in reverse.
Very early on, a scientist is explaining the science behind Tenet to Pro with the following dialogue: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” I wrote that piece of advice down immediately. I had a notion these words might aptly describe the next two hours plus. And they do. I certainly felt the decibel levels of Nolan and his crew choreographing expensive battles. They take place all over the globe in Norway, Italy, and Siberia. I did not, on the other hand, feel too invested in the complicated narrative mechanics that cause them. In fact, I wrote down something else I didn’t expect to while watching – “Austin Powers”. In that super spy’s second outing, The Spy Who Shagged Me, Austin attempts to understand the highly confusing time travel plot in a conversation with his colleague Basil. After twisting his brain into a knot discussing it, Basil smartly replies “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.” He then turns to the camera and says to us – “That goes for all of you, too.” It’s a funnier way of asking us to feel it whether we understand it or not. That request succeeds only intermittently with Tenet.
**1/2 (out of four)