Hollywood deals out dozens of what it is pleased to label “event movies” every year, but never in that institution’s history has there been an event movie like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. The event it marks is not just the movie’s release but also America’s return to something like normal life. No motion picture of any consequence has hit theaters since mid March, and so to see Tenet feels like a patriotic duty, or at least a gesture of American defiance in the face of adversity.
We could all use a bit of Wow right now and Tenet is Wow, cubed. I don’t consider it a great movie, but then again I couldn’t really follow it, due to my companion’s need to take several breaks and also perhaps due to its being just about the most narratively convoluted blockbuster Hollywood has yet produced. I sense some competition between the Nolan brothers; after the pair worked on Interstellar, the most recent of the five screenplays they wrote together, Jonathan Nolan saw Inception, thought, “I can make something more complicated than that,” and gave us Westworld. Christopher Nolan went “Pshaw, you call that tricksy? I’ve got something that’ll melt your ganglia, little bro . . .”
How about a movie in which the bad guys and good guys both go backward in time as well as forward? That way somebody could step through a time portal that works like a giant lazy Susan to help save a damsel who has been shot through the midsection, or to fight himself, or to be on both sides of a window that divides moving-forward from moving-backward. Could you really split yourself into two time-selves? Seems unlikely. But Nolan gets that we are living in the age of unlikely, and he tells us that the arrogance of the time masters in this movie is such that they believe they could go back in time and kill their own grandfathers without consequence.
As entertainment, Tenet certainly works on a glandular level. Whether the movie makes some kind of sense or whether the time stuff is simply the gimmick Nolan needs to set up his action tableaux, I couldn’t say, not until I’ve seen the movie about four more times. Nolan’s latest gargantuan effort to blow your mind may duly blow your mind, or it may simply bruise it, but at least it’s a whole lot of movie, and to that I say bravo.
John David Washington, who was so good in BlackKklansman, plays the protagonist (he actually says, “I’m the protagonist”). He’s a CIA man who, after a slight hiccup involving a rescue mission at the Ukrainian National Opera House, is welcomed into the next level of agents, where he is told that the secret signal is to interlace one’s fingers while uttering the palindrome “Tenet.” The word, we are told, opens many doors, including some that really ought to stay closed. In Mumbai, he meets up with a foppish English counterpart, Neil (Robert Pattinson), and the pair go gadding about the world picking up clues involving an art scam, a Russian billionaire (Kenneth Branagh), and the wife who hates him, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Nolan is miserly with the exposition, a big piece of which doesn’t get delivered until around the 90-minute mark of a two-and-a-half-hour film. Moreover, the IMAX presentation was so loud that not only did my seat do a wiggle when the bass got turned up to Judgment Day levels, but I couldn’t make out some of the dialogue.
The protagonist learns, “There’s a cold war, cold as ice” (Nolan does write some clunky dialogue) but when he asks about the potential for nuclear holocaust, he is told, “No, something worse.” Meet “inverted entropy,” a weapon developed via nuclear fission that could in theory wipe out not only our future but also our past. It’s a chilling phrase and, for the summer of 2020, an apt one. What is the 1619 Project doing, what are the mobs of iconoclasts hoping to accomplish, what is driving the deniers of our shared glory, if not “inverted entropy”? The new barbarians are going backwards through time to destroy the past because, just as some men like to watch the world burn, others like to torch history. Nolan, who started filming The Dark Knight Rises just before Occupy Wall Street got rolling, and in its predecessor The Dark Knight defended the Patriot Act more ably than any political figure, is the rare filmmaker who actually seems to pay attention to what is going on in America, rather than just grandstanding about made-up social ills that obsess so many of his competitors.
Nolan builds up to a cacophony of action that’s so complicated it makes that dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream stuff in Inception look like a story Fred Rogers might tell with hand puppets; something about a heist of Uranium-241 that isn’t really Uranium-241, nine time capsules from the future hidden all over the planet, and a “temporal pincers movement” in which your only prayer of grokking what’s going on is to remember the guys with red armbands are moving forwards in time, while team blue is moving backwards. All of this preposterousness Nolan delivers with a straight, indeed stern, face, not with the twinkle in the eye that accompanied, say, Avengers: Endgame. Nolan doesn’t even get that it’s funny when Mrs. Billionaire tells her ruthless husband, after each of them has tried to kill the other several times, “I want things to be better, Andrei.” Next time, try supervillain marriage counseling. But if Nolan weren’t as intensely committed to his puzzle palaces as a four-year-old is with the world’s most lavish LEGO set, he wouldn’t be Nolan. Amazing, confusing, amazingly confusing, Tenet is a movie that will earn some well-deserved ribbing for its too-twisty-by-half pretensions, but it’s a big, bold, bracing blast of blockbuster.