If you’re going to return to the cinema after months trapped in a far less appealing kind of darkness, there are few better filmmakers to welcome you back than Christopher Nolan, whose heart-racing blend of brains and spectacle, writ large on 70mm and IMAX, has the cinematic frisson to blow those lockdown cobwebs to kingdom come.
And yes, Tenet does achieve that, to a degree. But it’s also a perplexing experience, and slightly under-par for this exceptional director.
At the heart of Nolan’s cinema is his interest in the correspondence (or conflict) between reality and illusion, truth and lies, often played with a temporal sleight of hand. He entertains and challenges in equal measure, keeping us thrillingly on our toes. This time, though, he overplays his hand – or over-estimates his audience, call it what you will; for all but the most committed Nolanite, the constant head-scratching may become a distraction.
In relating the plot of Tenet, one can only offer surmise. As with Memento and Interstellar, time is of the essence. There is a threat from the future, the weapon a form of inverting time – not time travel, as such, but the ability to make objects literally move backwards through it (which may amount to the same thing, that fine point being one major source of befuddlement).
How exactly this inversion is dangerous is also moot. A scientist tasked with briefing the man known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington) in why he has to save the world doesn’t offer much help. Played with a lovely sense of resignation by Clémence Poésy, she merely plays a cute games with bullets, which re-enter a gun when it’s fired rather than shoot from it. “Don’t try to understand it,” she says. “Feel it.” She could, of course, be talking to us.
And so our unflappable super-spy simply wings it, through a Bond-beating globetrot that includes London and Mumbai, Tallinn and Italy’s Amalfi coast, in pursuit of the dark-hearted Russian oligarch, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who is collecting the pieces he needs to make inversion a deadly reality.
Tenet is the appropriately palindromic secret organisation which has enlisted The Protagonist to lead their defence, while keeping him largely in the dark. He has a seemingly trusty right-hand man in the form of dapper British spy Neil (Robert Pattinson), a shady Indian arms dealer (Dimple Kapadia) cum unreliable contact and Sator’s abused wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, above with Branagh) as a way into the Russian’s circle. And this being a Nolan film, Michael Caine has a cameo, a cheeky little space filler in which the Brit teases the impeccably groomed American on his dress sense.
Nolan is an adept genre masher and Tenet his attempt at blending the spy movie with science fiction. It’s as spectacularly choreographed, shot and scored as you’d expect, notably the opening attack on an opera house, which has the same exhilarating momentum as the bank robbery that opens The Dark Knight; a car chase and gun battle on a motorway, involving vehicles hurdling both forwards and backwards; and a gorgeous sequence involving hi-tech catamarans.
Surprisingly, the much-hyped live action plane crash is somewhat underwhelming, as is a fistfight between The Protagonist and a masked soldier (again, one moving forward, one backward) which doesn’t match its obvious, far more gleeful antecedent from Inception. Here the value is less visual than conceptual – it’s only when we view the same fight for a second time, an hour after the first, that we realise how weirdly smart it is.
This typifies the problem throughout the film: Nolan’s imaginative notions are too sketchily conveyed, leaving us several, frustrating steps behind the characters, and don’t play as coherently on screen as they undoubtedly do in the director’s head.
The flaw is most telling with the big action sequences, not least the climactic gun battle amid the ruins of a devastated city: when you don’t understand why exactly a confrontation is taking place – what’s at stake in that moment, who’s moving forwards, backyards in time, and to what end – the puzzlement denudes the moment of drama, tension, emotional investment. The spectacle becomes empty.
Nonetheless, if you accept the scientist’s advice, lean back into your IMAX chair and imbibe the sensory feast, there’s much to enjoy. Hoyte van Hoytema’s large format camerawork is sumptuous, Jennifer Lame’s editing is conducted with bristling efficiency, composer Ludwig Göransson picks up where Nolan regular Hans Zimmer left off, in driving the action along with a relentless, ominous score, the stunt work beggars belief.
And the cast is topnotch. Washington follows his breakthrough role in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman with another effortlessly assured lead performance – the glue through two and a half hours of mayhem. He and Pattinson make a brilliant spy pairing – one uber-cool, direct, the other slightly sleazy and ambivalent, both immaculately groomed and oozing charisma; Debicki gives another stirring depiction of a vulnerable woman about to bite back (though the script’s debt to The Night Manager for her character’s predicament is a little too blatant) and Branagh, who test-drove a similar role in 2014’s routine Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, provides a disturbingly nasty piece of work, who one can believe would destroy the whole planet out of petty spite.
Ultimately, Tenet is not as elegant or moving as Inception, not as formally satisfying as Memento or The Prestige, nor as viscerally exciting as the Batman movies. That said, I can already feel the compulsion to return to it. Arrogant or not, that’s undoubtedly part of Nolan’s cunning game and his philosophy for his movies – not just large-scaled, big-budgeted, determinedly celluloid, but dense enough to demand countless returns.