“Tenet” is a film which should come with Cliff’s Notes or its equivalent as it is more challenging than the average Hollywood blockbuster. Thankfully, I was able to follow the gist of the story which has the good guys fighting the bad guys in an effort to prevent World War III, but I am at a loss for explaining how the characters learn to manipulate the flow of time. I imagine it all makes perfect sense to writer and director Christopher Nolan and his good friend, theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, but I have already watched this film twice and I still cannot fully understand all of which happened. While “Inception” and “Interstellar” did make a good deal sense over the course of a few viewings, it will take a few more for me to completely decipher all of which “Tenet” has to offer.
“Black Klansman’s” John David Washington stars as a CIA agent who is only known as the Protagonist, and “Tenet” opens with him taking part in an extraction mission which ends up going awry as he is captured and ends up sacrificing himself after an extended torture session. But instead of arriving in the afterlife, he finds himself in bed and informed by his boss, Fay (Martin Donovan), that he has been recruited by an organization called Tenet which, as a word, can open the right doors and some of the wrong ones too.
The Protagonist’s meeting with scientist named Barbara (Clémence Poésy) helps him to learn about technology with inverted entropy, meaning technology which moves backward in time. At this point, I found myself digging this premise as it is always fascinating to find characters wondering if they exist not in the present, but instead a past which has been far removed from what is considered to be the future. It also calls into the question the concept of free will as the Protagonist is made to wonder if we are part of a story with a pre-determined ending. I love it when free will is dealt with as I am always rooting for it to be shown as real even in a work of pure fiction.
The rest of “Tenet” acts as Nolan’s version of a spy movie as the Protagonist seeks to infiltrate the treacherous realm of Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) who communicates with the future and is planning to give Earth a fate worse than nuclear Armageddon. In the process, he comes to meet Andrei’s wife, Katherine (“Widows’” Elizabeth Debicki), as well as Neil (Robert Pattinson), his partner in all things inverted or otherwise.
It is tempting to label “Tenet” as a time travel film, but Nolan has made it clear it is not. While Marty and Doc Brown can travel from one point in time to another in the “Back to the Future” trilogy, the characters here do not have the same power of instantaneous travel. To get to a certain point, they have to travel backwards in the past to get to it, and it is never an easy trip as the challenges prove to be quite draining physically. Keep in mind, this is one of the few motion pictures you will see where a character is saved from certain death thanks to hypothermia.
Like I said, I have already seen “Tenet” twice and still cannot explain all that goes on in it. We watch as characters live through moments portrayed both forwards and backwards in time, and the concept of inversion remains the kind of puzzle I am not quick to put together. With this film, Nolan may have bitten off far more than he can chew as the concepts here prove to be more cerebral than the first “Star Trek” pilot known as “The Cage.” Having said this, the film proves not to be too heady for me as such films can drive me to complete insanity or make me fall asleep while watching them. In the end, I am glad I did not come out of “Tenet” in the same way the average filmgoer came out of Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” desperate to make a lick of sense out of the cinematic chaos they just witnessed.
Nolan employs many of his regular collaborators here such as cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema and production designer Nathan Crowley, and they provide us with visuals which would have been great to see on the big screen or in IMAX had any theater in Los Angeles been open a few months ago. This is the first film from “The Dark Knight” director which I have been forced to watch on my television due to the never-ending Coronavirus pandemic, and it feels like such a missed opportunity to not have viewed it on the silver screen. Once movie theaters open up again, hopefully I will get another chance.
One Nolan’s newest collaborators on “Tenet,” other than editor Jennifer Lame, is composer Ludwig Göransson who won an Oscar for scoring “Black Panther.” Hans Zimmer was unavailable due to his commitment on scoring Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” but Göransson comes up with something as propulsive and percussive as what Zimmer would have likely given us. In many ways, his music is as much a character as any other in “Tenet,” and this is one of those music scores which deserves a more in-depth study than it has already received. Like Nolan, Göransson presents his music to us both forward and backward motions, and the result is endlessly fascinating to take in.
Right now, “Tenet” may likely be seen as lesser Nolan as its plot is more complicated than he would ever care to admit, but even the least of his works prove to be more ambitious and original than much of what Hollywood puts out on a regular basis. Even though I was a bit frustrated in trying to understand everything which unfolded before me, I was still deeply enthralled in what Nolan had to offer this time around.
When it comes to making sense out of this particular film, please keep a few things in mind: the word tenet is a palindrome, and the term Sator Square gave this film its title and is a two-dimensional word square which contains a five-word Latin palindrome. If you want to learn more, go online and find out for yourself. As much as I would like to explain everything for you, it is best you discover certain definitions on your own. The actor Andre Braugher once said that “if your vocabulary is limited, then your thoughts are limited.” Be like Braugher and don’t be limited.
* * * ½ out of * * * *