Christopher Nolan’s latest science fiction opus is a dense, multi-layered piece of pop entertainment that illuminates on the nature of man’s inability to stop impending disaster as often as it exhilarates with expertly choreographed action sequences. It’s more than a puzzle box or a perfectly-shot action film with nothing on its mind but confusing its audience. It’s an extremely detailed and consistently entertaining excuse to ask questions about humanity’s relationship with doom, with the end of the world, with our own self-destruction. These are pertinent, important questions (and answers) in 2020’s current hellscape, where day to day we grapple with the notion that civil society is a lot more fragile than we thought, that surreal antagonists such as deadly viruses that can cripple an entire planet are in no way only the stuff of cinema or searing nightmares. We’re a myopic bunch, mankind. As Robert Pattinson’s charming Neil puts it, “the world will never know what could happen. And even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Because no one cares about the bomb that didn’t go off. Only the one that did.”
With a propulsive, near-techno score by Ludwig Goransson and IMAX lensing by Hoyte Van Hoytema, Tenet is an experiential film visually and sonically. You can’t help but become entranced by the images and sounds rip-roaring across the large canvas screen, even when you don’t fully comprehend what is happening. I personally had no problem with the much-ridiculed Nolan sound mix this time around, wherein dialogue is occasionally drowned by score and sound effects. Though I had no trouble understanding dialogue, I had trouble keeping up with an avalanche of exposition and information that is relayed over the course of two and a half hours. That being said, by the third act everything mostly coheres, resembling the structure of a film narrative going backwards. The layered script is logically sound, my only complaint revolving around the characters’ relative lack of surprise at discovering time travel is real. John David Washington’s Protagonist (that’s his CIA code name, for reasons left unexplained) is a government spy, I get it. He’s seen terrific and terrible things in his globe-trotting career, but surely even a man like him would appreciate the absurd gravity of such a discovery. His mellow “whoa” attitude simply doesn’t make sense.
Washington has a bright future ahead of him, although I wonder if he was possibly miscast in a role that requires an ease on camera he hasn’t yet acquired in his young career. The Protagonist is a man who is a mystery to us because he’s a mystery to himself. He’s a good soldier for his country, one who has proven his commitment to spy craft and more on the job, but what else? He’s yet to learn what else. A character like his, reliant on screen presence more than serious development, needs an actor who can fill up the screen with their natural personality. Washington’s performance recalls that of many actors who have yet to shed every ounce of self-consciousness. His is a physically demanding performance, full of stunts and hand-to-hand combat, and Washington meets every one of those challenges with aplomb. As partner-in-crime Neil, Pattinson HAS shed every ounce of self-consciousness and his wily, suit-laden character lights up the screen in spite of a similar lack of psychology or background for us or him to sink his teeth into. Much like the Protagonist, there’s more to learn about him. From protagonist to antagonist to thematic cohesion, Nolan buries the lede, preferring to answer all of our simple narrative questions in the last half hour. This is a spy film with its eye on the macro of humanity at large, not so much the micro of individual actors in that space. If Dunkirk can do it and get away with it, so can Tenet.
Besides Nolan himself, the stars of Tenet are Elizabeth Debicki and Kenneth Branagh. This has to be Branagh’s most committed performance in over a decade, and for Debicki, her best performance next to a sensational turn in 2018’s Widows. As Andrei Sator, Branagh is a Russian arms dealer communicating with a future bent on destroying the past to save the present in their time. Whoever they are, they don’t believe in what’s called the “grandfather paradox,” that killing the past will kill the future. In Tenet’s world, the status of reality as either a single timeline or concurrent timelines is unknown. For Sator, he’s dying of cancer and has nothing to lose but time. He covets his wife Kat (Debicki) in a similar manner, controlling her through blackmail and other coercive means. As Neil and the Protagonist elbow their way closer to him, they discover Kat is key to succeeding in their mission. She’s embroiled in a toxic, abusive relationship with a man whose malignant narcissism runs so deep he’s willing to betray his own people if it means taking everyone with him. If he can’t have the world, no one can. Kat’s arc from cornered wife with no hope to something else, someone with something to fight for beyond an occasional day of peace with her son is riveting. She represents all of us who feel trapped by the evil men of the world who care not about our future (or even their own), only what money and power they can attain in the here and now before everything blows up.
If Kat, Neil, and the Protagonist are all of us at our best, then Sator is mankind at its most vile and selfish. In our current pandemic, there’s been much rhetoric to the effect of “if I get it, I get it” or “if people die, what can we do?” This unimaginative, defeatist nature extends to conversations surrounding climate change and other issues of our time. Collectively we have a much different reaction to natural disaster than we do hostile foreign powers or terrorism, viewing death by wildfire or hurricane or wicked virus as unavoidable versus the evils of criminals and countries we have deemed our enemy. Never mind the event that hasn’t yet come to pass or the slow-churning cycle of climate change that doesn’t exist to so many despite unfolding in front of us so often. The fight response is a stronger impulse than flight, and one that somehow only arises when confronted with a tangible, human villain to kill with bullets or bombs. Tenet is about stopping a future that’s already happened, that is inevitable. It’s also about holding onto hope when misguided or evil men have lost all of theirs and chosen to go down with the ship, flip the table in a last gasp for salvation. It’s a film about men who can only save the world with the knowledge of hindsight. “What’s happened happened, which is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world. It’s not an excuse to do nothing.”