The multi-layered Tenet is a head wreck that makes Inception look like a Paul Rudd rom-com
The watchword for Christopher Nolan's latest foray into the metaphysical espionage sci-fi thriller is "don’t try to understand it. Feel it". It is uttered at a pivotal moment in Tenet and damn good advice it is too. However, it may present challenges for the audience in the same way it has for the filmmakers.
Nolan has been here before with 2010’s Inception, an Escher drawing of a movie which dwelt in the twilight world of dreams and the subconscious but which held its drink and nerve a damn sight better than this conceptual salad of Big Ideas and interminable expository dialogue. In Tenet, everything seems to be happening at once on a loop and while that’s The Idea, it means it commits the cardinal sin of any movie of any genre – it is really quite boring and more than a little irritating.
After the hugely impressive and impressionistic Dunkirk, this is a return to familiar synapse-snapping territory for Nolan. He’s back to head wreck us again with a high concept epic but as always, he lays on the action, from reverse bungee jumping, catamaran racing off the Amalfi coast, and much Bond-like globetrotting.
John David Washington plays the Protagonist, an operative who is recruited by a shadowy organisation called Tenet to take part in a covert mission beyond the realms of actual time to avert something "worse than World War Three". Dark forces in the future are controlling the flow of time and plotting the destruction of the present with the use of a doohickey MacGuffin that looks like a leftover from Blake’s 7.
In his race against (yup!) time, the Protagonist is joined by Neil (Robert Pattinson channelling his inner Christopher Hitchens), a suave English spy with a dry wit, and a crack force of military types who look like they’ve just stepped out of Stargate SG-1.
Watch our interview with John David Washington
Such niceties as plot development and actual narrative arc are explained away in the arcane argot of "time inversion": "the grandfather paradox" is invoked, someone casually says "I have a masters in physics", and at one point I was reminded of hokey sixties TV show The Time Tunnel ("If we send you in there, there is no guarantee we can get you back out again"). Later, someone also says in hushed tones, "Should we tell British Intelligence?" Based on recent developments, that’s a hard no.
In the middle of this straining plot superstructure, the performances from a cast who are as handsome as the locations (Denmark, Estonia, India, the Amalfi coast, Norway, Southampton) are uniformly good. Having impressed in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKansman, Washington has a cool charisma (and some killer quips) as the man who is about to know too much; Elizabeth Debicki, doing her Night Manager thing again, is glacial and enigmatic but also vulnerable as Kat, the estranged wife chained to the diabolical Russian oligarch Andrei Stor by a truly nefarious noose of emotional blackmail.
But it’s a grizzled, paunchy and unashamedly hammy Kenneth Branagh who makes a five-course meal of the scenery as Stor, a man who makes all Bond villains ever look like Miss Moneypenny. He is a truly nasty piece of dirty work. Time inversion? Stor looks like he could detonate the planet with a glower.
It has much in common with Inception and your opinion of that movie will depend on your readiness to get on board with this high concept hokum. If Inception was all about "extraction", Tenet is all about "inversion", both movies share an ambition to turn the intangible into real world events, and, as with Inception, this is an epic and complex story shot through with a very human thread. Nolan regular Michael Caine even makes a cameo appearance as a mentor to the leading man.
Watch our interview with Elizabeth Debicki
It also has elements of Shane Carruth’s little seen 2004 time travel movie Primer, The Edge of Tomorrow, and Duncan Jones’s Source Code.
Of course, it looks terrific and if you don’t understand it, you will certainly feel it. Nolan’s talent for shooting massive set-pieces is almost unmatched. A scene involving a 747 crashing into an airport terminal uses a real 747, and there are some haywire car chases, shoot-outs and close quarters fight scenes (look out for an Oscar-worthy use of a cheese grater).
Essentially, this is a series of elaborate, very well-choreographed heists and action sequences interrupted by lots of gnomic and often inaudible mumbling about stuff like entropy, and "temporal pincer movements", clearly the Schlieffen Plan of this time inversion malarkey.
It’s a high concept thriller which never fails to take itself with deadly seriousness but Tenet fails to live up to the intriguing set-up in the first act and doesn’t quite convince the viewer of its internal logic as much as, say, The Matrix, Interstellar or Inception.
Tenet could very well enjoy what may pass for a box office bonanza in these straitened times as the nerderati flock in groups of six or less to unpick its myriad complexities but at first viewing, when the hard-won ending finally arrives, you may think it’s two and a half hours of your life you’ll never get back. Or, indeed, get a chance to invert.
Alan Corr @CorrAlan2