Editor’s Note: Looking for a break from reviewing last year’s crop of “movies with a conscience,” reviewer Michael Young calls our attention to the latest cinematic entry from the writer-director of the hugely successful “Dark Knight Trilogy”: “Batman Begins (2005), “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). Although met with an underwhelming critical reception and honored only with a 2020 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” may be just the mind-bending escapist spectacle you need this weekend. Available on DVD from Netflix, to stream on HBO Max and Hulu Premium and to buy for $14.99 on a variety of streaming platforms
I really wanted “Tenet” to be an outrageously good movie. I mean, it’s global ticket sales of upwards of $350 million in the middle of the pandemic almost singlehandedly saved the movie industry. And it was another blockbuster from British-American writer-director Christopher Nolan, who gave us the “Dark Knight” comic book movies, as well as mystifying and sensually rich films like “Inception,” “Memento” and “Interstellar.” It has a cliffhanger of a plot: Will a secret agent who learns of an attack that will take place in the future and destroy the world figure out how to avert it? And with Nolan’s having been provided a budget of $205 million, why wouldn’t you expect an over-the-top cinema experience.
Well, “Tenet” is indeed a sensual delight, even though it did not live up to expectations that it would, almost singlehandedly, save the movie industry in the middle of the pandemic. The score, from Ludwig Goransson (Oscar winner for “Black Panther”), is heavy, but also engages the same musical themes both backwards and forwards, reflecting the movie’s varying time dimensions—a staple Nolanesque plot twist. The cinematography (in IMAX and 70mm) was done by Hoyte van Hoytema (Oscar-nominated for “Dunkirk”) and is lushly colored and fully immersive. The main characters are almost always strikingly costumed in impeccably tailored suits, and every scene is staged with careful attention to details. (Production design was by Nathan Crowley, the past recipient of five Oscar nominations, and Kathy Lucas, one.) The movie is a masterwork of stunning visual and aural stimulation.
And that’s not even counting the visual effects. Yes, “Tenet” won the Oscar in this category and, although I’ve seen only “Mulan” among the other competitors for this award so far, I fully understand why Tenet won the award. What makes these special effects different from those featured in so many nominated movies is that there was absolutely no CGI (computer-generated imagery). All of the effects are what, in the industry, are called “practical effects.” Basically, that means that everything you see was staged using old-fashioned techniques and stuntmen (and -women). Usually when a movie like this has a huge budget, you expect that a massive computer bank has been churning out the visuals, leaving the actors to imagine their computer-generated foes while filming scenes in front of green screens. Not when the director is the purist Christopher Nolan, whose preference is for real action only.
And there is plenty of that. The initial scene involves an attack on a symphony concert that amps up the adrenaline and sets the pace for the rest of the movie. In another important scene, an airplane crashes into a hangar and starts a fire. In this case, instead of using miniatures or CGI, the filmmakers bought a real 747 and crashed it into a real airplane hangar. Then there is one of the most intense heists (involving the capture of the goods while in transport) ever shot. It required the shutdown of a six-lane highway in Tallinn, Estonia, for several hours and the deployment of five very large vehicles, including a fire ladder truck. Finally, there is a car chase scene involving not two, but three automobiles, whose pyrotechnics would make James Bond order an extra martini. All of this was filmed with traditional “practical effects” technology, which makes the resulting spectacles even more impressive.
It is impossible not to compare this movie to a James Bond film, and I can imagine that the producers worked very hard to release “Tenet” in advance of “No Time to Die,” the newest Bond flick. The excitement and pace of “Tenet” are similar, and the locations are correspondingly scattered around the world and include Estonia, Denmark, Italy, London, Mumbai and Los Angeles. “Tenet” even has a Russian villain (Kenneth Branagh as Sator), who, plagued with a terminal illness, has conceived a plot to destroy the entire world when he commits suicide. These are all the elements of a Bond film, and whatever you feel about those movies will likely influence your opinion of this one.
But there are also some big differences. In Most of Christopher Nolan’s movies reveal his fascination with two important motifsthat you won’t find in a typical Bond film. One is in playing with time, and the other is in creating mental puzzles that, at their deepest levels, will only be solved by extreme devotees willing to watch the movie numerous times. “Memento,” for example, told the story backwards and from the point of view of someone who was totally unable to remember some key things. “Inception” dealt with dreams and the idea of planting thoughts by inserting experiences into the characters’ dreams. “Interstellar” involves traveling through wormholes in order to save humanity. Even “Dunkirk,” set in World War II, layered three different time perspectives around a single event. All of these films require an investment on the part the viewer if you have any chance of understanding the story.
With “Tenet,” Nolan may have gone too far. There is time travel involved here—in fact, there are, apparently, four different “portals” through which people can be transport between time periods. But the real problem is not time travel, per se. It’s Nolan’s embrace of the concept of “entropy reversal,” which is sort of like time travel, but not exactly. Humans (of the future) have developed a technology that allows them to somehow embed objects (including people) with the possibility of existing in a physics realm where energy does not seek its lowest state, but rather naturally winds back to a higher state. In such a world a gun doesn’t fire a bullet, but rather catches it as it comes back from wherever it resided (in a block of cement or a glass window). Yeah, “entropy reversal” is a really tough concept to wrap your head around, and, despite Nolan’s having had a physicist advise him on the script, I’m not sure everything in the movie is perfectly consistent with this premise. (Of course, I’m no physicist, either.)
But the point is that neither is 99.9 percent of the audience for this movie. And Trying to keep up with the “reverse physics” of this film is going to be more than a mind-full for the average viewer. As Barbara (Clemence Poesy), a scientist, tells the main character, called The Protagonist, early in the movie, “Don’t try to understand, feel it.” I’m guessing she is also talking to the audience. Movie critics have also felt compelled to forewarn their readers. Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com) wrote: “Nolan goes so far down his own rabbit hole of time travel that one almost needs to take notes to keep up. . . .” James Berardinelli (ReelViews.net) noted: “. . .this may be the most challenging of Nolan’s films to date when it comes to wrapping one’s mind around the concepts forming the narrative’s foundation: Backwards-moving entropy, non-linear thinking, temporal paradoxes.” Jessica Kiang (New York Times) didn’t worry about including spoilers in her review because “. . . even attempting an explanation of a plot so contorted it’s best not to worry about it.”
So, unless you are one of those rare nerds who will view this movie six times and tease out all of its puzzles—there is one involving the words Tenet, Arepo, Sator; and three more that I don’t even pretend to understand, and I tend to like puzzles—then you may well ask what is there here for you? Will you enjoy the characters maybe? John David Washington plays The Protagonist. (That’s correct, he doesn’t have a name and isn’t called anything by anybody throughout the film, but is listed in the credits as the main character.) Washington does a terrific job here as the secret agent and would be a wonderful replacement for Daniel Craig in the James Bond franchise. His performance has the right mix of confusion and understanding called for to convincingly occupy in this role.
If The Protagonist is a James Bond stand-in, then there has to be a Bond Woman, right? And here that role is played by the statuesque Elizabeth Debicki. She is the highly estranged wife, Kat, of the main villain, Sator, whose only concern when she is offered the job of saving the world is whether that includes her son. The total lack of chemistry between The Protagonist and Kat is a thread that could have been developed and never was. Instead, she just sort of hangs out there, serving only as eye candy in a side story with no real purpose or impact.
Whatever chemistry exists in the movie is between The Protagonist and Neil (Robert Pattinson, best known for his portrayal of vampire Edward Cullen in “Twilight”). Neil is an intriguing person with a very uncertain history (or should I say future!). With a master’s in physics, he tells The Protagonist near the end of the movie: “I’ll see you at the beginning, my friend.” Another puzzle to figure out.
To get the most out of this film, I suggest you pay close attention to two scenes, in particular, where the Protagonist is doing battle with an opponent in a hallway. The story—and the accompanying visual effect—are all tightly wrapped up in these two mirror-image confrontations.
So, should you see this movie? Well, I think the answer is yes. But not because there is a cogent plot line, and not because there are sympathetic characters. No, see it because the visual and aural stimulation will transport you away from your all the daily stresses and concerns. “Tenet” is truly two and a half hours of wonderful escape! And, in the end, that’s enough. 3.5 stars