“Tenet” was already shaping up as the year’s premier event movie before a certain global pandemic turned it into something closer to a holy grail: an unknown, unattainable object of intrigue, its enigmatic allure intensifying as it moved further and further away on the blighted release schedule. That’s an absurd way to regard any film, but amid the business-minded panic and frustration of its chronic postponement, one wonders if director Christopher Nolan was secretly at least a little amused by the heightened mystique around it all. A blockbuster artist who tends to cocoon his works in ceremonial secrecy at the best of times, he has wound up releasing his 11th feature into an aptly disordered environment. A concrete cornucopia of global chaos and threat, in which humanity’s survival depends on the minor matter of reshaping time and space, “Tenet” looks well suited to an anxious age.
But it’s also just a movie: a big, brashly beautiful, grandiosely enjoyable one that will provide succor to audiences long-starved for escapist spectacle on this beefy, made-for-Imax scale. (Opening on Aug. 26 in international markets, it will make its way to the U.S. on Sept. 3.) It’s not, however, a film with much of consequence to say about the real world it’s finally entering, or indeed the elaborately rearranged, eve-of-destruction world it has devised on screen. That’s not a mark against it. It’s just that “Tenet,” for the better part of 2020, came to seem practically an abstract object, as fans pored over the palindromic implications of its title, and assembled the few, opaque scraps of publicity we were fed into a puzzle not of the film’s own making.
That the film turns out to be more straightforward — however ornately presented — than our wildest speculation about it is quite disarming. Like “Inception,” which used the essential language of the heist film as an organizing structure for Nolan’s peculiar fixations of chronology and consciousness, “Tenet” tricks out the spy thriller with expanded science-fiction parameters to return to those pet themes.
Again, his musings are rooted more in physics than philosophy or psychology, with the film’s grabby hook — that you can change the world not by traveling through time, but inverting it — explored in terms of how it practically works, not how it makes anyone feel. If this tendency leads Nolan’s critics to label him a chilly filmmaker, there’s the barest hint of knowing silliness to “Tenet” that warms it up. It plays best when it stops showing us its work and morphs into the fanciest James Bond romp you ever did see, complete with dizzy global location-hopping, car chases that slip and loop like spaghetti, and bespoke tailoring you actually want to reach into the screen and stroke.
As for what it’s actually about, “Tenet” places any reviewer in a familiar bind with Nolan: What’s narratively most interesting about it is strictly off-limits in any pre-screening discussion. A pounding introductory set-piece plunges us into a packed Kiev opera house as it falls prey to a terrorist heist, infiltrated in turn by an unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington) to retrieve some manner of asset. Nolan’s script is evasive and sketchy on details at first, which may lead you to think this immersively choreographed scene is just a bit of formal flexing before the story begins in earnest. (The first sound we hear in the film, after all, is that of an orchestra tuning up, before composer Ludwig Göransson — more than ably filling in for Nolan standby Hans Zimmer — thunders in with his own thrilling percussive clatter.)
Yet this apparent prologue is also rife with clues and cues for later reference, as befits a film in which present, past and future aren’t always neatly sequential, but sometimes as swiftly cut through as three lanes on a fast-moving highway. Following the Kiev operation, Washington’s stoically imposing character — only ever identified as the Protagonist — is promptly released from the CIA and into a shadowy, less identifiable international espionage organization. Allied with flip, knowing English handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), about whom we learn little but his cool knack for working an upturned blazer collar, he’s set on a mission that is variously described as preventing World War III and saving the world altogether — such generically high-stakes objectives that you can’t help wondering if Nolan is taking us, and indeed his bemused Protagonist, for a ride.
Either way, the quest shuttles us on a trail of elaborately planted MacGuffins from India to Estonia, from the Bay of Naples to the notorious “closed cities” of Russia. (In these, Nathan Crowley’s production design wittily plays off the retro-futurism of their Brutalist architecture to reflect the film’s own overlaid timelines.) A sinister whisper network of international arms dealers emerges, with one of them, Priya (the wonderful Dimple Kapadia, in the film’s wiliest performance) serving principally to coax the Protagonist through the corridors of Nolan’s storytelling. But the ultimate target is Sator (Kenneth Branagh, wielding another ripe cod-Russian accent), a bottomlessly evil oligarch who may or may not hold the world in his clammy hands — often raised in anger to his estranged but trapped wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a brittle art auctioneer for whom the script permits its Protagonist the bare minimum of feeling.
Written this way, the setup sounds like standard-issue Ian Fleming stuff. The trick, of course, lies in that misty, sexy concept of time inversion, which is better seen on the screen than explained on the page — though Nolan, as is his wont as a screenwriter, doesn’t skimp on slightly stodgy, film-pausing explanations either. Like “Inception,” it’s a film where well-informed characters often ask questions (“Do you know what a freeport is?” “You’re familiar with the Manhattan Project?”) to which they immediately supply a detailed answer. As much verbiage as Nolan devotes to unpicking his jazziest ideas, the excitement is all in their cinematic illustration: The film’s eerie images of bullets hurtling backwards through inverted air (the detritus of a coming war, we’re told) are more striking than the neat theory behind their trajectory.
“Don’t try to understand it, feel it,” a cryptic scientist (Clémence Poésy) counsels the Protagonist early on, and whether Nolan intends it or not, this feels like solid advice for the viewer too. “Tenet” is not in itself that difficult to understand: It’s more convoluted than it is complex, wider than it is deep, and there’s more linearity to its form than you might guess, though it offers some elegantly executed structural figure-eights along the way. (Indie-trained editor Jennifer Lame, new to Nolan’s crew, pulls off these coups with a deft, surprising lack of fuss and flash.)
All of which is to say that precisely tracing the dense graph of the plotting in “Tenet” feels like work at the expense of its more sensory, movie-movie pleasures. Those range from the propulsive tumble of its fight sequences to the mesmerizing, carved-in-marble beauty of its stars, clothed in an infinite supply of cloud-soft, immaculately cinched suiting by costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and slicked in the oily gloss of Hoyte van Hoytema’s black-and-blue lensing.
The sheer meticulousness of Nolan’s grand-canvas action aesthetic is enthralling, as if to compensate for the stray loose threads and teasing paradoxes of his screenplay — or perhaps simply to underline that they don’t matter all that much. “Tenet” is no holy grail, but for all its stern, solemn posing, it’s dizzy, expensive, bang-up entertainment of both the old and new school. Right now, as it belatedly crashes a dormant global release calendar, it seems something of a time inversion in itself.