Whatever else it may be, Tenet effectively functions as a comprehensive review of Christopher Nolan as a maker of blockbuster cinema. All of his strengths and weaknesses course through this picture: It’s bold and sweepingly ambitious, well-acted and gorgeously shot. Unfortunately, Tenet is also too long, too indulgent, and too pregnant with plot. It’s bound to provoke passionately polarized responses, replete with credible arguments that this might be either the best or worst thing Nolan has ever done. As for me, I admired the scattered pieces more than the whole puzzle–a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever paid one.
Tenet‘s story is so dense and bulky that unpacking it represents a challenge. Deep breath: The Protagonist (John David Washington) is an undercover CIA operative. He quells a terrorist attack at the Kyiv Opera House, but its aftermath uncovers a larger and even more sinister plot. Turns out, somebody has discovered the secret of time travel and is moving backward, manipulating the flow of events. The Protagonist–that name must’ve been exhausting to type in a script over and over–links up with a resourceful CIA handler (Robert Pattinson) to infiltrate a powerful criminal enterprise, headed up by a cold-blooded arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh). To gain further access, the Protag decides to use the bad guy’s estranged wife (Elizabeth Debicki).
Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky: Because of the time travel angle, Tenet features parallel plots moving in opposite directions. That means you get a host of characters, a raft of expositional dialogue, and a bunch of subplots, with all of it flowing backwards and forwards. Often in the same scene. I’m not even sure “confusing” is the right word. “Confounding” might work a little better. Nolan chucks out dialogue at breakneck speed: Random character names, exotic locales, scientific mumbo-jumbo–they all come and go, and I’m sitting here like a thawed Austin Powers. “Good lord, I’ve gone cross-eyed.”
The good news is Tenet gradually untangles as it moves forward. Or backward. Whatever. That means that even though Nolan’s script threatens to bog in its laborious second act, things do pull together for surprisingly strong finish. Unfortunately, that also means you’re gonna have to keep running until the marathon reaches its final miles. Tenet clocks in at 150 minutes, yet somehow feels even longer.
Nolan is clearly trying to deliver his own brand of Bond film. The Protagonist serves as his 007–suave and scrappy, likable yet deadly. We see beautiful vistas, cool gadgets, and badass fight scenes. A good girl who might be a little bit bad? A monologging villain? Check and check. The only problem is that Nolan’s sci-fi spy epic lacks the panache of the better Bond flicks. Tenet takes itself just a smidge too seriously, a fact that only adds a few pounds to the film’s plot-heaviness. As it is, Tenet just isn’t as fun as it could’ve been.
Now, let’s dissect the good stuff. Few directors have the knack for bravura action that Nolan does, and that’s on full display here. Tenet essentially bounces from one big action set piece to another, and each one blends mind-bending CGI with real-world effects and stuntwork. Of particular note are a reverse car chase, a runaway Boeing on the tarmac, and a massive desert gun battle. These are all made with meticulous craftsmanship, and give the movie much-needed jolts of energy.
As the Protagonist, Washington makes for a credible action star, even if his character is fairly unremarkable. Pattinson seems to be having the most fun, playing Felix Leiter to the Protag’s 007. I know he’s been cast as Bruce Wayne–and I do have some doubts–but, damn it, I think Pattinson would’ve made a perfectly fine James Bond. I think he could kick some ass and bring some of the funny back to that franchise. Branagh does what he can with his run-of-the-mill megalomaniac, but this character also feels creatively malnourished. I just get the vibe that Nolan blew his creative wad with all the brainy time-travel shenanigans, and there just wasn’t enough energy to make anybody in this script seem three-dimensional.
I’m not sure where all that leaves us. Is Tenet a magnificently average film, or maybe the most mediocre classic ever made? Actually, yes to both. Nolan somehow achieves what he sets out to do and comes up short. A lot of people will defend this movie to the death, but it just plain wore me out. Maybe for my next viewing, I’ll try to start at the end and work my way backward. Or forward. Whatever. Hell, I’d probably still be confused.
150 min. PG-13.