In Christopher Nolan’s latest head-scratcher and surely the summer’s most awaited film, Russian gazillionaire Andrei Stor (Kenneth Branagh) has access to a nuclear weapon that could annihilate the planet. He intends to use it. Fortunately, a mysterious international organisation called Tenet has hired a special agent (BlacKkKlansman’s John David Washington) to stop him.
Washington, or “the Protagonist”, as he is referred to in the credits, is tasked with saving the world. Nolan, on the other hand, is tasked with saving cinema. Films such as The Dark Knight, the centrepiece of his moody, straight-faced Batman trilogy, and the high-concept espionage thriller Inception helped to cement the British writer-director’s reputation as a rare auteur able to infuse the blockbuster with complex ideas.
Tenet’s financial stakes couldn’t be higher. Multiplexes are banking on audiences weighing up the relative risk of returning to the pictures. The worry is that if even a movie of this scale can’t revitalise cinema-going more venues are likely close for good. The current circumstances have seen the release date repeatedly delayed, to maximise the film’s profit potential.
Nolan enlists box-office draw Robert Pattinson (camp and sweaty in a linen suit) as the Protagonist’s accomplice, Neil. Clémence Poésy’s scientist Laura and mafiosa Priya (Bollywood superstar Dimple Kapadia) drip feed him clues about the weapon and its potential as he weaves through Tallinn, Mumbai, London, Oslo and Pompei. The film’s rarefied world comprises private yachts, offshore tax havens and gold bullion.
The athleticism of former American football player Washington is harnessed for big action sequences, but Nolan mutes the actor’s natural charisma. A stoic blankness is required and so Washington dutifully channels it. Wasteful, given the buddy-comedy chemistry that shines through in his scenes with Pattinson, a welcome break from the otherwise po-faced proceedings.
The Protagonist must also rescue English art authenticator Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) from her controlling, estranged husband, Andrei. Debicki telegraphs fire roiling beneath ice, her 6ft 3in frame deployed to practical effect in a scene that sees her manoeuvre her way out of a locked car. “People who’ve amassed fortunes like your husband generally aren’t OK with being cheated out of any of it,” the Protagonist warns Kat, but the film is not a critique of the moneyed class. Unlike in Nolan’s Batman films, Tenet’s misanthropic villain happens to be self-made.
Mathematical patterns are the organising principles of Nolan’s oeuvre, tenets, if you will. Think Memento’s non-linear structure, the doubling motif in The Prestige or the geometric illustration of time in Interstellar. As Tenet’s palindromic title hints, symmetry has a role to play here too. All the other hallmarks of a Nolan film are also present: seriousness, spectacle, a bloated running time (admittedly, at two-and-a-half hours, on the shorter end for him). There are few laughs and certainly no sex. Dialogue is mumbled and obscured by the metallic sound design and the twitchy, plucked electronic strings of Ludwig Göransson’s score. We see complicated things being explained, but we rarely hear them. Meanwhile, audible conversations are shot so to deliberately disorient and dazzle the viewer. As the Protagonist, Neil and pilot Mahir (Himesh Patel) plot a heist, the camera rotates around them distractingly.
“Don’t try to understand it – feel it,” explains Laura to the Protagonist as he attempts to wrap his brain around the science of an “inverted bullet”. Nolan seems to be saying the same thing, encouraging the audience to trust the film’s beats and to feel its impact on a gut level. As a strategy of film-making, it’s a supremely confident one and in parts Nolan pulls it off. The story is built around elaborate set pieces such as a slow-motion plane crash and a car chase that plays out in reverse. Cinematographer and frequent collaborator Hoyte van Hoytema shoots in Imax 70mm for maximum immersion (though the format feels better utilised in their 2017 war epic Dunkirk).
Except the film is too self-consciously “elevated” to work as a big, fun, dumb action movie satisfied with saving humankind. Nolan’s desire to stimulate both the blood and the brain feels earnest. What’s frustrating is that he doesn’t trust his audience to follow along. “You’re not here for what, you’re here for how,” says Laura. The Protagonist also encourages us to “have faith in the mechanics of the world”. If this is a metaphor for the mechanics of cinema, it’s a cynical one that assumes the masses are easily impressed – and all too easily manipulated. Understanding is not expected; the viewer is kept in their place.