Charged with the twin missions of kickstarting cinemagoing post-lockdown (outside the US, at least) and out-Nolanning every previous Christopher Nolan movie, Tenet carries a lot on its shoulders. The fact that it made it into cinemas is an achievement, but does it deliver? The critical consensus has been a qualified, often confused, “yes”, although opinions have differed widely, even among Guardian and Observer critics. One thing all will agree: as well as a fresh jolt of spectacle to revive the flatlining movie business, Tenet provides plenty to talk about and plenty to think about. Too much? Let’s talk about that.
Could you make sense of it?
Even measured against Nolan’s usual origami plots, Tenet stretches audience comprehension to its limits. The story hinges on the concept of “inversion”. It’s the idea that things can appear to travel backwards in time, though some viewers have struggled to fully grasp this notion, what with Tenet’s reams of exposition, not helped by occasionally muffled dialogue and distractingly spectacular action sequences.
The further you get into the plot, the more difficult it becomes to keep track of what’s what and who’s when. It’s like trying to complete a cryptic crossword while reciting the 13 times table backwards while on a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” Clémence Poésy’s scientist advises our hero, known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington). So were we feeling it? And did we understand it?
Tenet’s climactic battle scene is especially challenging. Even though the two detachments of the “temporal pincer movement” are conveniently colour-coded and numerous visual cues are flagged up (the distinctive tag on Robert Pattinson’s backpack, for example), viewers might find it difficult to work out how, when or even if the battle is won, or lost. When you’re rearranging the cause-and-effect building blocks of storytelling like this, you’re always in danger of losing the audience. Many have been happy to just sit back and let the spectacle bombard the senses.
Is that enough? Did you get it? And if not, will you go back and watch it again? Perhaps viewing it backwards might help?
Does it actually make sense?
It’s one thing for Tenet to feel as if it makes sense on the screen, but does it stand up to logical scrutiny? Tenet’s characters repeatedly stress that “inversion” is not time travel – a distinction that conveniently enables the movie to circumvent the pitfalls and paradoxes common to time-travel movies. At least Tenet broaches the problem head-on by bringing up the “grandfather paradox”. It goes like this: If you go back in time and kill your grandfather, does that mean you’ll stop existing? With no grandfather, you can’t be born. And if you don’t exist, there’s no one to kill grandpa in the first place. Similarly, if Washington’s Protagonist had successfully foiled Kenneth Branagh’s plan, wouldn’t Branagh know that in the future, and so try something else? Or conversely, aren’t Washington’s past actions (such as recruiting Pattinson’s Neil) based on knowledge he has gleaned from the future?
Other questions abound: how were the “time stiles” built? If only the bullets were travelling backwards in time, why did the things they hit miraculously fix themselves? What happens if someone needs the toilet? Nolan consulted physicist Kip Thorne (who also helped out on Interstellar) to ground Tenet in credible physics, but did they plug all the holes?
Better than Bond?
Strip out the sci-fi elements and Tenet’s set-up is very familiar: glamorous international locations; expensive vehicles; huge action set-pieces; a plot that depends on getting the MacGuffin off the baddies to save the world, not to mention a preoccupation with men’s tailoring. Tenet is a homage to the James Bond movies. Nolan recently claimed to know “as much about the Bond films as Alan Partridge does” (a Celebrity Mastermind showdown surely beckons). He specifically swore off watching any Bond movies while making Tenet, to avoid overlap. Not that it shows, particularly.
Nolan’s name is often the first to come up when future Bond directors are discussed; is Tenet his audition? Certainly, he has a command of the action sequences: the explosive airport raid and the reverse-gear motorway heist/chase sequence are both ingenious and exhilarating, all the more effective for their reliance on practical stunts and effects, rather than green-screen computer-aided trickery. Hoyte van Hoytema’s pristine cinematography also gives the visuals a familiar luxurious sheen – especially, when the setting is, say, a villa overlooking the Amalfi coast, or a racing catamaran (Hoytema was also cinematographer for Spectre). Does Tenet up the game for the likes of Bond and Mission: Impossible? Or do we still prefer our thrills old-school and linear? Perhaps we’ll find out when No Time to Die finally hits cinemas in three months’ time.
Despite Tenet’s complex plot engineering, it is the human elements that keep the whole thing in motion. Washington, in particular. He’s in some ways a brave choice for such an expensive venture: by no means an established name (his breakout role came in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman) and a rare actor of colour in Nolan’s gallery of overwhelmingly white central characters. His role requires understated charm and soul but also a great deal of physical skill – not least in a painstakingly choreographed fight scene with his “inverted” self.
Washington’s co-star Elizabeth Debicki is also a relatively fresh face, best known for roles in Steve McQueen’s Widows, though her star is set to rise with her casting as Princess Diana in series five and six of The Crown. As with Washington, her performance has been largely acclaimed, but is her character somewhat schematic? It is Debicki who does much of what little emoting there is to be done in Tenet, although her defining characteristics seem to be love for her son and marital torment – though she shows some steely cunning under pressure in the latter stages.
Pattinson we can almost skip over as a safe pair of hands and a suit-friendly pair of shoulders at this stage. But Branagh’s portrayal of Russian villain Andrei Sator is likely to be more divisive, especially for audiences who last saw him as the heavily Belgian-accented Hercule Poirot.
Tenet bravely leads the mission to reopen cinemas but it will almost certainly pay a price for it. Even if it is a huge hit, it is unlikely to earn as much at the box office as it could have done in Covid-free times. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most expensive non-franchise movies ever made, with an estimated budget of more than $200m (£150m). Will we see its like again? And do we want to? For some critics, Tenet is a variation on a theme Nolan has now mined to exhaustion. From Memento to Interstellar to Inception, clever, twisty, time-manipulating stories have sealed Nolan’s reputation, but you wonder how much further he can take them. Has has he reached his own “inversion point”? Does he need to find some new storytelling tricks to which to apply his considerable skills, or are you eager for more? A Tenet sequel, even?