2020, PG-13, 150 min. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 11, 2020
It's an old story. A fascinating indie filmmaker, especially in science fiction, trades off complexity of ideas for budget. It's understandable. Studios are inherently risk averse, so even when they dare to challenge the audience even a mite, what you end up with is the existentialism-for-beginners of The Matrix, the clodhopping satire of Starship Troopers, or the spoonfed causality of Edge of Tomorrow. But every indie sci-fi director, slogging away in the world of the sealed bottle three-hander (a mainstay of the micro-budget, maxi-idea world) has that one script. The absurdly huge production that doesn't just glance at the complexity of high-brow SF, but weaves it through every scene, demanding that the audience keep up, pay attention, extrapolate.
Those pipe dream films never get made. Unless, of course, you're Christopher Nolan, who continues his foray into cerebral SF with an action twist with Tenet, a gorgeous, violent, brilliant puzzle box of a movie that relishes in how convoluted it is, and pays off every second of attention.
How demanding? The underlying mechanic of Tenet is Princeton physics professor John Wheeler's one-electron universe postulate, wherein he argued that all electrons and positrons are actually the same particle, just whizzing backwards and forwards in time. The unnamed The Protagonist (Washington) is a man out of time, having snapped on a suicide pill after an abortive rescue mission in the middle of a siege in an Eastern European opera house (one of many engrossing and gritty action set pieces that drive the plot). Only death is not permanent this time, and he's snatched from what he would think was the sweet embrace of death. He has new handlers, and Washington imbues The Protagonist with the rigorous moral absolutism that would allow him to take these latest spymasters at their word: that word being tenet. Time, it seems, is a palindrome, and someone has worked out how to reverse the entropy of objects, sending them backwards along their own timeline. The technology is currently impossible, but the nifty part of time travel is that it doesn't have to be from now. "What happens, happened," explains Neil (Pattinson), his new partner/fixer, as The Protagonist heads off on a bloody globe-trotting mission to hunt down Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Branagh, excellently deploying his rarely-seen brutal side). In this, he develops a begrudging ally in Kat (Debicki), Sator's wife who wants to flee the bullying monster but is kept at his side for the love of their son. Meanwhile the world is ticking backwards and forwards to extinction.
It's not that Tenet is breaking new ground, as Dr. Who executed a similar story of backwards/forwards plot device across multiple seasons. However, Nolan takes a convoluted SF concept and whirls it into the spy/action genre. This is his James Bond because, while it's easy to forget, many 007 movies are about exotic tech ending up in the wrong hands (usually lasers or satellites or satellite lasers) and the hero being dispatched to retrieve it. Nolan ramps that up from cutting-edge weapons to theoretical physics, and then builds the plot into that. The story only works because characters can double, triple, or even quadruple back on themselves. That undoubtedly makes it far more challenging as a viewer than when he dropped through levels of reality in Inception, and the tiniest details – a thread, a patch, a reversing vehicle – can often pay off significant plot reveals. Sometimes they're even vital, with several key sequences arguably unintelligible unless you realize that half the action is flowing backwards.
That Nolan makes any of this work is a complete miracle – especially since he's become increasingly dedicated to practical stunt work post-Dunkirk (yes, that is a real plane that he crashes into an airport hangar. Yet he builds some of the most convoluted heist sequences ever filmed – a suited raid on a vault, a massive car chase that fills the much of the middle act – with clarity. Moreover, for a writer often accused of being humorless, this may be his most playful script, often arid in its dry humor, and much of it provided by Pattinson playing an inverted Felix Leiter to Washington's stoical Bond riff. It all adds up to making Nolan's heady blend of Asimov and le Carré as much of a classic action flick as it is a sci-fi headscratcher.