By now you may have run into dozens of reviews describing Tenet as “mind-blowing” and “incomprehensible”, while basically relinquishing any intention to dig deeper into the film.
This is not one of those reviews.
It’s true, the framing of the film is confounding, but writer/director Christopher Nolan knows he needs to leave enough breadcrumbs to keep the audience hooked. Otherwise, you’ve an unbearable, dissatisfying flick like Primer, the flick Tenet resembles the most.
With that goal in mind, the filmmaker doesn’t use characters to tell the story. He uses avatars and narrative devices immediately recognizable for anyone who has seen a Hitchcock movie (or a previous Nolan flick, for that matter). So instead of trying to describe the mind-bending plot device (objects’ entropy running backwards), this is what you need to know to venture into the Tenet-verse.
The Protagonist: Actually, the name of the character. The Protagonist (John David Washington) is an anti-terrorist operative recruited by a mysterious cabal known as Tenet. The purpose of the organization is to prevent a civilization-ending catastrophe, the only clues of which are objects whose physics have been reversed and now run backwards.
The villain: A weapons dealer with no redeemable features, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is increasingly close to control the technology required to control the phenomenon. Because there’s no complexity to the villain, our loyalty to The Protagonist never waivers. This is a noir film at heart.
The Hitchcock blonde: Sator’s ex-wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), is under the criminal’s thumb and while sympathetic, cannot be trusted. Kat is supposed to be the emotional center of the film, as her only motivation is to gain sole custody of her son. Here’s a classic Nolan problem: He doesn’t do emotion well and goes with a cliché to keep the audience invested. Not only it doesn’t work, the director fails to see true heart of the film, standing right in front of him.
The non-playable characters: Much like in a video game, as The Protagonist progresses in his quest, he encounters allies that provide the necessary information to continue to the next stage. In one of these roles, Michael Caine (Nolan’s good luck charm) provides the movie’s single moment of levity. It’s no news to anybody Christopher Nolan takes himself very seriously.
The MacGuffin: To go too deep here would be spoilery. Suffice to say the device drives the second half of the movie and is remarkably cumbersome.
The wild card: Up to this point, the characters are fundamentally archetypes. Enter Robert Pattinson as The Protagonist’s sidekick, Neil. There’s no reason to trust anybody in Tenet, but Neil is genial and immediately likeable. I was far more invested on him than in Kat’s predicament. Pattinson’s role is the only one that doesn’t fit neatly in classic narratives and the one capable of eliciting an emotional response.
As you can see, the storyline minus the time-bending plot device is straight-forward and you can easily follow it without having to understand thermodynamics. I would even go further and say it doesn’t really matter. It’s no different than quantum physics in the Avengers movies. Just go with it. Enjoy the über-kinetic, original action scenes that come from it (characters moving forward while the surroundings move backwards).
Now, is it worth it? Previous Nolan movies have manipulated our understanding of time to enhance a story (Dunkirk) or dig deeper in the fragmented psyche of the lead (Memento, Inception, Interstellar). The narrative device in Tenet doesn’t do either: The story is basic and the characters are basically sleeves. That places the film in the lower half of Nolan’s oeuvre in terms of quality. There’s spectacle, but it’s empty.
I’ve no doubt upon multiple views Tenet will make perfect sense (Nolan is, above all, a cerebral filmmaker), but how fair is that for the public? With limited hours on the day to consume content, the idea one has to watch a movie repeatedly to “get it” is, at the very least, pretentious. There’s a selected group of films that has earned that right over time, but also stand by themselves just fine (several Nolan films fit this criteria).
I can appreciate Christopher Nolan cares about the theatrical experience and Tenet is absolutely gorgeous. One would be hard-pressed to identify any CGI shots. But there’s one thing the auteur can do audiences would appreciate: Stop having characters deliver crucial plot points while masked. At an IMAX, with the volume cranked up, I often couldn’t understand what the characters were saying. The most expensive three prairie dogs ever (out of five).
Tenet is now playing, everywhere.