Synopsis: CIA agent races against time to prevent catastrophe.
Don’t call it time travel. Writer-director Christopher Nolan tries to break our brains with his plot device that centers around “inverting an object’s entropy.” He rejects Back to the Future‘s template of easy-to-understand time travel: get into time traveling car, set date you want to go to & Presto! you are back to the past or future.
The plot is basically a James Bond-Jason Bourne hybrid vehicle. John David Washington stars as a CIA agent, the Protagonist, who has to zip around the world whispering “tenet” to various other spies. When he asks his handler who they have to save, he casually responds: Everyone. If you are not convinced of the seriousness of the matter you will be when JDW nods and says: We need to prevent World War III.” To which his handler intones: Worse.
Now, don’t worry that I will reveal any spoilers because I was mostly confused. Christopher Nolan does have some helpful instructors along the way. Early on we see the Protagonist visiting a lab where a scientist is abrupt with him until he drops the palindrome “Tenet.” She then begins to explain time inversion by having him fire bullets at a rock, telling him the bullet holes were already there or something. Then she has JDW don big dishwashing gloves –which I later learned were lead-lined — and has him repeatedly drop and yo-yo the bullets back to his hand. “Don’t try and understand it. Feel it,” she commands.
As much as the filmmaker explicates the theory, it boils down to reversing what has happened. Be prepared to see reverse car chases, unexploding buildings and backwards fights. According to Kenneth Branagh, who plays the film’s villain, the actors filmed some scenes saying their lines in reverse. Somehow I doubt that.
Have you seen Sir Kenneth in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit starring Chris Pine and Keira Knightley? He plays a ruthless Russian oligarch. He more or less plays the same character in Tenet. I really feel like British people need to stop playing Russians. Alright, since KenBran is so set on doing his Russian accent, he gets a pass to do Chekhov plays. Here his name is Andrei Sator. He is an arms dealer and, just like a Bond villain, he has impeccable manners. But don’t be fooled by his fine taste, for he is a psycho.
The Protagonist/JDW needs to stop KenBran from time travel crime or something very bad like that. He travels hither and yon for intel, meeting up in India with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a British agent. RPatz is louche and mysterious. Sort of like Edward in the Twilight movies. In fact, at one point a character tells JDW that we live in a twilight world. This may have been a metaphor, but I think it was a reference to RPatz’ movie vampire past.
Rpatz is set to become another creature of the night, Batman, and Tenet is good training for the physical prowess that he will need for the role. He and JDW spend a lot of time running, fighting and literally slingshotting themselves onto a skyscraper balcony. This is much cooler than being shot out of a cannon.
JDW needs to get close to KenBran, so he approaches his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), in London where she is an art dealer. Have you seen The Night Manager starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie? In it she was trapped in a loveless relationship with an arms dealer. Same character here. You won’t believe the dumb reason she is forced to stay with her husband in Tenet. It involves a foolish purchase she made.
JDW watches the sad lady drop her son off at school. She is wearing a finely tailored outfit that says: I am a billionaire schoolmarm. When he finally makes contact with her at an art gallery, he wrangles an invitation to the family yacht. I was fascinated by how she seemed to grow ever taller in between scenes.
Christopher Nolan may be taking inspiration from James Cameron’s dialog writing because once JDW is on the yacht, Nolan has KenBran say things to JDW like: Have you slept with my wife? This is two seconds after they say hello. Most of the characters speak at a low volume, but oftentimes KenBran’s vile ogre will scream things at poor Eliz. Debicki like: If I can’t have you…NO ONE CAN!!!! and You don’t negotiate with a tiger!!!! All this is silly enough, but with his Russian-accented raging it’s delightfully risible.
While JDW travels around in well-tailored suits, unruffled by his high-pressure job, he endeavors to collect pieces of the time travel machine—excuse me, time inversion apparatus. It seemed sort of like when Harry Potter had to risk his life traveling far and wide in search of horcrux.
Christopher Nolan knows he is being too clever by half (he should leave this to Tom Stoppard), so he occasionally has RPatz drop in on JDW to give (the audience) refresher courses on time inversion. RPatz tells another character that he has a master’s degree in Physics and have they ever heard of the Grandfather Paradox? If you go back in time and kill your grandfather (not a nice thing to do), how will you be born? Btw, he’s telling this to a character who has just come out of consciousness and asks what’s going on. I think they meant “who shot me?” No matter, RPatz needs to get some rest, along with JDW, on the backwards-rushing barge to the past. So he pumps some sleepy-time tea into the patient. I’m not a doctor, but I’m guessing that’s not the best treatment to a gunshot to the gut.
The pièce de résistance of the production is a budget busting low-speed crash of a taxiing jet. I have a feeling that Mr. Nolan got the idea for the fire-billowing smash up first and found a reason for it later.
Tenet clunks to a stop after two and a half hours and more than two hundred million dollars. Perusing my notes later, I chuckled recalling a scene between John David Washington and Kenneth Branagh wherein JDW fiercely brands the madman “a madman!” KenBran, his eyes aglow, utters, “Or a God.”
Yes, it’s good for a laugh, but it had me contemplating the director’s hubris; spending bundles of money on a thriller that’s a wad of confusion. For some, the action scenes will make the movie worthwhile viewing. Not for me.
P.S. Don’t let Chris. Nolan fool you –after blowing all his money on crashes, he had to pretend about the yacht off the coast of Vietnam —it’s really the Amalfi Coast, Italy.