Let’s start with the good stuff. Tenet — surely the most widely anticipated film of 2020, for several overlapping reasons — is a slick and stylish thriller bearing Christopher Nolan’s unmistakeable thumbprints. John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki are very good in it. The movie is often exciting, and it has a couple good fights and car chases of a kind we haven’t quite seen before. It is always surprising, and it’s innovative in a way massive-budget blockbuster films rarely get to be. Tenet looks like it was very hard to make, and thus it is very impressive. Whatever else it is, you can’t say it’s not ambitious.
But it’s that “whatever else it is” part that I keep tripping over. I’m not the only critic who’s noted the impossibility of really describing this movie, even to your friends in private. It’s seems spoiler-proof by design; the entire plot was posted (accurately) on Wikipedia within days of the film’s first international screenings, but I can’t say that reading it will really tell you a lot about the movie, or its secrets and twists.
That’s not a problem, however. Tenet is not really a film that is ”about” its plot. The story is more of an excuse to turn the form of the movie into a mind game, a brain tease, like one of those jangly puzzle things you can pick up at a museum gift shop to fiddle with when you’re bored. Every time you think you’ve figured it out, another bit of it pops loose, and you have to start all over again.
To what end, I am not sure. I have uniformly loved, or at least admired, every film Christopher Nolan has ever made. He is perhaps the only household-name director in Hollywood who can turn out impeccable, ambitious, original films that meet the standards of many cinephiles while also luring huge general-interest audiences. It’s a tricky feat to pull off, but he’s done it for decades now.
Still, there’s a chilliness to Tenet that I haven’t felt in his previous work. The stakes, presumably, couldn’t be higher — both onscreen and offscreen — but after watching the movie, I don’t understand why I was meant to care. As an intellectual exercise, Tenet is very interesting, if not entirely successful. As a movie, I’m not so sure.
Tenet is both highly ambitious and a little unimaginative
Here I have to mention the elephant in the room. Normally I would’ve tried to see a film like Tenet at least one more time before reviewing it, to try to pick apart some of its trickier mechanisms and determine whether they click into place or fall apart under scrutiny. But I won’t be doing that with Tenet, because I can’t.
I live in New York, where movie theaters remain closed. So to see the movie, I had to rent a car and drive out of state to attend a private screening, in which a tiny handful of people wearing masks sat in a massive and very clean theater, with no concessions and far more than 6 feet between us. It was a privilege afforded me because of my job, and one that most people won’t have. Even if I could buy a ticket to see Tenet again this weekend, closer to home, I’d still be wary, given epidemiologists’ cautions, of voluntarily spending hours in an enclosed room with people who might choose to remove their masks to eat or drink.
But since I can’t buy a ticket where I live, that choice has been made for me. I cannot make that choice for you, and I won’t. I can say that if you’re planning to wait, for whatever reason, until you can see Tenet at home, that’s perfectly fine. I saw it on an IMAX screen, but unlike with Nolan’s 2017 masterpiece Dunkirk, I don’t really feel that the shifted aspect ratio added much to the Tenet experience. In Dunkirk, the IMAX footage cranked up the movie’s emotional heft, portraying the magnitude of the challenge the soldiers faced. Shot by frequent Nolan collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema, Tenet is often very nice to look at, but there’s no real reason to see it huge. (Be warned: It is also very loud.)
The thing about movie reviews, however, is that they aren’t only (or even primarily) written for the present; they’re records for the future, to show how a movie was received in its historical context. And I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, when people may sit down to watch the movie in a theater or at home, totally detached from the context of a global pandemic. So imagine along with me — and with a measure of thematic appropriateness — that the rest of this review is for the future, when I hope with all my might that we as a society won’t be contemplating whether we’re risking our lives to go sit in a dark room and be entertained for a couple hours.
As I’ve said, I couldn’t spoil Tenet even if I wanted to. But I can briefly set it up: The story involves an agent whom the credits call “the Protagonist” (John David Washington). The Protagonist is sent on a truly brain-bending mission, for reasons he does not understand. Along the way he encounters an unhappy woman (Elizabeth Debicki) married to a cruel, fabulously wealthy oligarch (Kenneth Branagh, doing a Russian accent) who also seems to be dealing with some shadowy and devious figures. The Protagonist partners up with Neil (Robert Pattinson, excellent as always), who seems to know more about what’s happening than he lets on. Also, there is some kind of group called Tenet pulling the strings behind the scenes, and someone, somewhere, has hatched a plot to destroy humanity. The Protagonist and Neil hop around the world, climb things, jump off things, shoot guns, drink martinis in fancy places — Tenet’s nods to the spy genre are undeniable. And, of course, things get messy, physically and metaphysically.
The apocalyptic plot point was where my disappointment started. Whenever a blockbuster declares “and all of humanity will be destroyed!” to establish its stakes, I assume it’s a crutch to get us to care about the characters. But we can only be asked to care about the end of the world so many times (while living through our own hair-raising serial apocalypses) before it loses its punch. Somehow, I expected something more ... surprising? ... from a filmmaker of Nolan’s caliber.
Some of the other things I found frustrating, I hesitate to reveal, because the discovery of them can be enjoyable. Tenet moves so fast that it’s only afterward you’ll start thinking, Wait, what? Possibly all the pieces hold together; possibly I was just bewildered by watching a movie on a huge screen after six months of watching movies on my laptop. But the internal logic of Tenet doesn’t quite work.
So-called “plot holes” are never a reason to dismiss a movie out of hand. Our pleasure in watching any film depends, first and foremost, on suspending our disbelief and allowing a filmmaker to play in a grand sandbox of their own devising while we watch. Sometimes things don’t hold together perfectly — a problem that time travel movies have dealt with for decades (which is a running joke, by the way, in the new Bill and Ted movie) — but we like them anyhow because of how they make us feel and think.
Perhaps my biggest issue with Tenet, then, is that while it forced me to think, it didn’t reward my efforts to figure out what was happening. In movies that are puzzle boxes, mysteries, or elaborate tricks — for instance, Nolan’s 2006 thriller The Prestige — the audience experiences a satisfying moment where the thing they’ve been watching clicks into place. Maybe the mystery isn’t solved, but suddenly the pieces slot together and you see the magnificent creation the director was crafting the whole time, in plain sight, while you were looking at other things.
I never experienced that moment with Tenet, and what’s more, I think the movie tried to inspire that moment and failed. Similarly, it also fails to give us enough reason to care about its characters, though it seems to try. You can feel the great movie Tenet could have been, which makes the striving and falling short feel worse by comparison.
Tenet continues Christopher Nolan’s explorations of his grandest themes
Still, it’s not a failure of a movie. Nolan is almost singular among well-known contemporary filmmakers in his pursuit of a few matters, and the most gratifying part of Tenet is seeing two of his obsessions rear their heads once again.
The first is the way that time itself — a thing we’re accustomed to thinking of as a fixed fact of life, ticking forward steadily — is actually much more slippery, much more tied to our lived humanity. He’s played with this idea off and on throughout his films, but the best example is probably Dunkirk, in which three timelines unfold at the same time but at different rates, mimicking the experiences of the characters for whom time is rushing by or dragging, depending on where they sit and what they anticipate or dread.
I don’t know if Nolan’s fixation on time is why he became a filmmaker or if it’s the other way around, but his job and his fascination with time are certainly linked. One of the joys of cinema is that when we watch a movie, we are watching time pass. The director can speed it up or slow it down through editing and other technical tricks, and we can have the illusion that we’ve lived through a full day when it’s been only a couple of hours (as with Sam Mendes’s 1917, for instance). Normally we can only perceive time, not control it, but a filmmaker gets to reverse that rule and be in charge of time, if only for a while.
Time is also linked to our memories, and memory is a way to relive lost time — something Nolan has explored from very early on in his career, such as with 2000’s Memento, as well as in other films like 2010’s Inception. What and who we remember is, in a sense, the summation of who we are. Tenet poses a question: Can your identity be linked to something that can’t reside in your memory yet? It’s an intriguing possibility, even if it doesn’t quite feel like Tenet does much with it.
And this finally brings me to the grander, more interesting project of Nolan’s, which seems to be the exploration of how ostensibly sterile systems and concepts like math and science intersect with the intangible and metaphysical aspects of being a human. Memory, yes. But also things like love (see 2014’s Interstellar) and, in Tenet’s case, faith. In a story about time and fate, it’s no shocker that faith comes up; the question of predestination lurks around the corners of the film. But the larger question, raised by Pattinson’s character as Tenet concludes, is whether “faith” might just be faith in the mechanics of the world.
That Nolan makes more than a few nods in Tenet to the Sator square — an ancient palindrome some scholars believe was meant to be a covert sign of pagan or Christian faith, or perhaps an incantation — leads me to believe this line is meant to be more than just a snappy way to finish a film. He is continuing his probe into the heart of being human, of being alive in a universe we barely understand, and he’s using cinema to do it.
But exploring interesting ideas isn’t enough to make for a good movie — and that’s why Tenet still doesn’t work for me. It’s the first Nolan movie in a long while that I’ve left feeling disappointed. And yet there is enough good stuff buried beneath its antiseptic, perhaps overly showy technique, once you get past the clankier bits, that is worth exploring. Tenet masquerades as a puzzle box, but it reads more like another key that Nolan has stuck into the door that conceals the secret of life.
Tenet opens in select US theaters on September 3.