Christopher Nolan enjoys a charmed life among the ranks of Hollywood directors. He may have a reputation for bringing in projects on-time and on-budget, but few of his peers could hope to get away with such complex plots and abstruse ideas. If you thought Interstellar (2014) was incomprehensible, brace yourself for Tenet, a sci fi, espionage movie in which the action seems to be moving forwards and backwards simultaneously. This is implicit in the title, as “tenet” is a palindrome – that is: a word that reads the same way forwards or backwards
In this period when blockbuster releases are scarce it seems odd that we’re seeing this movie. Perhaps the reason lies with Nolan’s love of complexity, because Tenet is the kind of film that might struggle in competition with more conventional action flicks. By releasing it during the time of COVID-19 it has the field – and the potential audience – pretty much to itself. There is already a joke circulating that it’s bound to do well at the box office because everyone will have to watch the movie several times to figure out what’s going on. Once was enough for me – not because I’ve cracked the code, but because I doubt that even the director could explain what it’s about.
In its strange mimickry of a James Bond movie, Tenet comes perilously close to parody. Nolan departs from the Bond template in the choice of protagonist: John David Washington may not be the first black action hero, but he is probably the first to have a beard, a wardrobe full of sharp suits, and no name. Kenneth Branagh is the villain, Andrei Sator – a Russian oligarch equipped with the kind of sinister accent obligatory for all Bond villains. Robert Pattinson is Neil, a secret service operative who acts as Washington’s cohort and enabler. One suspects he’s intended to be suave, droll and mysterious – but with Pattinson’s talents one can never quite tell. It might simply be a nervous condition that makes him keep raising his eyebrows and twisting his mouth.
Finally there is Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, the oligarch’s wife. I almost wrote “the inevitable Elizabeth Debicki”, as her tall, gazelle-like form seems to materialise in almost every new film. Whatever Debicki has, it is currently in great demand, but in Tenet she has been allotted a role that is neither one thing nor the other. She’s heroine and victim; battered wife, doting mother and femme fatale. Her husband’s pathological possessiveness never rings true, and the relationship with No Name never becomes romantic – even though the script seems to toy listlessly with this idea.
Because our hero has to spend the entire movie saving the planet he has little time for superfluities such as a love life or a sense of humour. When he’s not involved in some extraordinary stunt or fight, the nameless one has long conversations with Neil; or Michael Caine, as an old bureaucrat; or Clémence Poésy, playing a scientist. It’s these conversations that hold the clues to the awesome menace he must defeat.
It seems that Sator is in communication with the future, receiving regular packages that will enable him to reverse the flow of time in some way and destroy the world. He got started on this unique career path when he worked at a secret Russian city where all sorts of nuclear stuff happened. We see proof of the threat in watching bullets fly back into a gun, or objects leaping upwards into people’s hands. Later there’ll be car chases in which vehicles speed in reverse, and other scenes in which the lead characters meet different versions of themselves.
The story has something to do with an algorithm, but for more information the hero has to travel to Mumbai and scale a skyscraper to question an Indian scientist named Priya (Dimple Kapadia). Oh yes, there’s also a phoney Goya painting concealed in a high security lock-up at the airport in Olso, that Nameless and his pal, Neil, must steal, in order to break the oligarch’s hold over Kat. They seem to succeed, even if it means having to drive an airliner into the side of the building. Then again, perhaps they didn’t succeed. And since Sator wants nothing less than Armageddon, what’s the point in worrying about a blackmail threat?
In the last part of the movie, the hero and Neil and a whole bunch of troops must launch an assault on the secret Russian city, to defuse some device or other, while the the clock ticks down ominously – an original idea, n’est pas? Half the soldiers are running forwards, the other half run backwards, but at least it provides a good excuse for a frightful amount of shooting and explosions. Do they eventually save the world? I’ll leave that question dangling.
As you can see, this is a story with many different strands that keeps darting around the globe, in Bond-like fashion, to glamorous or remote locations. It confirms my suspicion that any film which deals with time travel stands an excellent chance of plunging its audience into a series of logical paradoxes that turn plots into jigsaw puzzles. Add an espionage motif, with the usual secrets and anxieties about who is friend and who is foe, and eventually awareness dawns that there’s little point in trying to follow the arcane movements of the narrative.
By far the most successful parts of Tenet are the set-piece action scenes that come along at regular intervals, from the terrorist attack on a concert hall that begins the fiim, to the use of a 747 as a battering ram, to the car chases in Oslo. These moments are like wake-up calls bringing us out of the fog of pseudo-science that settles on every conversation. Sitting in a dark, socially distanced cinema one can only dream of hitting the fast forward button, breaking free from the verbiage, and travelling through time from one explosive moment to the next.
Written & directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine
UK/USA, rated M, 150 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 August, 2020