Whatever your feelings about Christopher Nolan‘s films, it’s hard to deny that he has a very specific vision of filmcraft, and that he pulls at certain threads with an ability like no other. His early films showcased a desire to take a certain plot point and examine it in a way that people simply weren’t accustomed to as part of what films did. Memento may not have won you over, and the post-film analysis may have led to some doubt about whether or not any of it made sense, but in the moment it was hard not to get caught up in the examination of a mental curiosity.
Tenet delivers on that same ability, and no one is going to be left with any doubt that Nolan directed every second of it, but it’s lost in the expansion of a koan that not only doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the film itself doesn’t actually take seriously. Where earlier Nolan efforts wanted to explore what it might truly mean to have a strange mental abnormality, or the real breadth and depth of messing about with people’s psyches, Tenet is instead largely sold on its cleverness and would rather dazzle with the oddity of the production obstructions its premise creates.
John David Washington (as Protagonist) is roped into a new league of criminal activity as he becomes embroiled in a plot that is earth-shattering, but also decidedly unclear from all fronts. He’s faced with the information that there are artifacts, and apparently people, who are in fact moving backward through time. Some mysterious cabal seems to be gearing up for… something, having created technology that makes this possible, and whatever the plot, it can’t be anything good.
He soon begins working with another agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson), and while the pair don’t know much about what’s going on, or how to figure out what’s going on, it becomes apparent that there is an elite group of those “in the know”, and an incredibly rich Russian, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), is the key actor in whatever time-related shenanigans are afoot.
Nolan is playing out a Bond film here, complete with screwy gadgets, exotic locales, and villains hiding in the plain sight of opulence, but it’s Bond through a sci-fi lens that distracts from the thrilling chases and feints-within-feints by incoherently having the gimmick mean whatever sounds like a fun scene to shoot at the time. Cars nonsensically drive backwards, despite the film following up by showing this to be counter to its own theory, there’s no coherent way for the bullet to have gotten into the block of stone, people try to kill themselves despite the fact that it turns out to serve no narrative logic, time itself works in five different, conflicting ways, because that’s what it takes to get from one scene to the next. In the end, however “popcorny fun” it may all feel in the moment, nothing actually pulls the mass of stunts together into a story worth caring about.
Washington and Pattinson are charismatic almost to fault and deliver characters you wish you could watch in something that wasn’t laughing at you, but Branagh is chewing scenery in a role that makes you suspect he demanded to twirl his mustache and Nolan wasn’t going to say no.
It’s a shame, because the cat-and-mouse, and Branagh-free conversations, harken back to Following and The Prestige, when Nolan could suck you in with the smallest exchanges of microscoping humanity. The buried story is intriguing. The one that is only tangentially related to anything sci-fi. Perhaps most importantly, the background idea of being after a villain when you don’t really know what endgame they are after is the sort of narrative that can hold an audience in the palm of your hand when you aren’t tripping over yourself to really destroy a plane whether it amounts to anything on screen or not.
The worst of Nolan’s films are better than most things that come along, because he’s usually trying to do something brilliant and doesn’t quite get there. This time, the film’s many positives are wildly overshadowed by a vainglorious script that is condescending while inconsistent, and telegraphs every move in any case.