Rumor has it that the James Bond franchise, not that long ago, approached Christopher Nolan about possibly trying his hand at a 007 installment. The Interstellar director passed, obviously, though his latest film Tenet implies that the challenge of defining a “Nolan Bond movie” implanted itself so deeply in the writer-director’s psyche (Inception style) that Nolan just figured he’d pull the job off himself.
A globe-trotting exercise in civilization saving, Tenet trades the stirred martinis and cheeky sexual innuendo of the 007 franchise for deep-cover espionage wrapped around time inversion that threatens to unravel the fabric of reality as we know it. You know, typical Nolan storytelling. We learn, rapidly, about temporal manipulations, educate ourselves on future societies that figured out how to communicate with the past, and marvel at eye-popping practical set pieces that you’ll swear are impossible, even as you are watching them play out in screen.
In a word? Tenet is mindblowing.
Even by Christopher Nolan’s standards, Tenet is wildly original.
You have never, ever, ever, ever seen anything like Tenet before. Ever. Those who’ve tracked Nolan’s filmography to this point – and if you are reading this review, you undoubtedly have – will pick up on themes that resonate in his work. The most bombastic physical sequences are rooted in small, emotional relationships and bonds of love or friendship. The storyline is linear, but not. Nolan’s mind works differently, and films like Memento, The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar have trained us how to watch a Nolan movie… which now allows him to take his storytelling to the next level.
Welcome to inversion, a physics conceit that suggests that time can be manipulated to move backward, from the future to the past, the same way that we experience time moving forward. Tenet gives us examples so that we can somewhat understand how an object’s entropy is reversed. Moving forward, a bullet is fired from a gun into a wall. In inversion, the bullet leaves the wall and is caught by the gun. Does it always make sense? Not in the slightest, but it works well enough to hold Tenet together.
Once you accept the notion of inversion, Tenet plays out like a fairly straightforward spy thriller, making this (and I’m shocked to be able to say this) one of Nolan’s most accessible build-a-better-mousetrap brain teases. Our protagonist (John David Washington), only dubbed The Protagonist, is a CIA agent roped into a mission to investigate bullets that have been manipulated by a devious Russian arms dealer, Sator (Kenneth Branagh). The protagonist has different opportunities to obtain important information or details from Sator. But the manipulation of time means that Nolan often has his characters moving forward or backward, sometimes through sections of the film we’ve already seen.
Christopher Nolan thinks differently, and cinema is all the better for it.
I want to say that I can explain to you exactly how Tenet works, but I’d be lying. I’m fairly certain I kept up with bulk of the plot, and understood more than enough to marvel and the bold and unpredictable swings Nolan takes with his outstanding script. Tenet is intelligent, without being smarter-than-you. It’s ambitious, but doesn’t lose its audience in the scope of its storytelling. And in the moments when it connects its dots for those who’ve been paying close attention, it’s exhilarating in ways few other filmmakers are able to achieve.
Nolan thinks differently. Occasionally, I’ve accused him of getting too lost in his own “Nolan-ness.” Others believe that’s his sweet spot, and can’t get enough of the director’s logic-bending mental acrobatics. Tenet will give them the type of workout they anticipate with each new Nolan, offering a brilliant screenplay that interlocks like the fingers on a hand making the woven gesture that the Protagonist uses to infiltrate these secret societies. “Does your head hurt yet?” one characters asks of the Protagonist. It will, but in the best way possible.
Tenet is a masterpiece, with one glaring issue.
Tenet is masterful. Few directors even try to work on Nolan’s level, and to witness him taking huge swings like this, time after time, and actually connecting is downright impossible. His intricate blockbusters, calculated down to the nanosecond, are high-wire dances that you watch with your heart in your throat, convinced he won’t be able to complete the elaborate trick he has labored so hard at establishing.
And yet, there’s one consistent element to Nolan’s features that’s frustratingly insufficient, and it dings Tenet this time out, as well. The director has admitted over the years that he does not do ADR for his dialogue, meaning he doesn’t ask the actors to come back in to a booth and record speech that might get drowned out on set. Nolan prefers to rely on what’s captured that day. He’s a purist, but that instinct works against him from time to time. His IMAX cameras can be loud. Scenes he chooses to film on a speeding parasail (in Tenet) make it virtually impossible to hear the important words that are being said. My first theatrical experience with Interstellar was so distorted, I mentally checked out on the plot, and that might happen with Tenet depending on your theater’s mix. I admire Nolan’s commitment to the set, but can’t deny it hurts his storytelling in the long run.
But Tenet is so damn ambitious, so damn accomplished, and so damn entertaining, it’d be ludicrous not to acknowledge the 98% of the effort that exceeds all expectation because 2% creates a hiccup. The film is a mind-blowing spectacle, a hold-on-by-your-fingernails thrill ride with subtle touches of wit, romance, suspense, tragedy, determination and cinema-driven awe woven throughout it. It’s hard to imagine movies getting much better than this.
Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.