Tenet can very likely be explained. I’m not sure it can be experienced.
Much like Memento, Inception, The Prestige, and Interstellar, Tenet is another Christopher Nolan puzzle box, this time in the guise of a James Bond movie. But unlike those earlier films, Tenet fails to walk that fine line between intellectually teasing an audience and leaving us flummoxed. “Don’t try to understand it,” a character says at one point. “Feel it.” But without understanding, especially in the moment, there isn’t much to feel.
John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) stars as The Protagonist, an American espionage agent partaking in a covert operation at a Ukrainian concert hall in the movie’s exciting opening sequence. (I love how Ludwig Göransson’s unnerving, dissonant score melds with the orchestra’s tuning instruments.) Things go awry, and in a startling way: at one point The Protagonist witnesses a bullet seemingly reversing course out of the concrete it had impacted.
Emerging from a coma after that event, The Protagonist is recruited by a shadowy group to investigate the bullet’s source. I’ll leave the rest of the details for you to discover (not that I’d be able to accurately describe them anyway). Tenet, which is written and directed by Nolan, offers explanations and demonstrations, as his movies are wont to do. These provide a vague sense of what is going on, but they weren’t enough for me to make sense of the signature set pieces which put the premise into play. I knew the rules that were being broken—rules of time, space, and physics—but not the new rules that took their place.
And so a sequence clearly meant to be the equivalent of the “dream within a dream” opener of Inception, in which The Protagonist fights an antagonist whose movements appear to be moving backwards, registered as little more than a visual curiosity, rather than a mind-blowing revelation. The same can be said for virtually every set piece that followed, including a road heist that offers some Fast & Furious thrills before succumbing to convoluted metaphysics. Eventually the confusion spills over into the very narrative; during the military-invasion climax, I was not only unclear on the physics involved, but on who was shooting whom, and why.
I knew the rules that were being broken — rules of time, space, and physics — but not the new rules that took their place.
This isn’t only a practical matter. At their best, Nolan’s “tricks” have thematic and/or emotional resonance. Think of the way Leonard’s memory wiping in Memento speaks to the way we often delude ourselves, or the way all the dream-diving in Inception works as a metaphor for repression. The double-take conceit of Tenet, as far as I could follow it, held no such thematic heft.
It does allow for some bold, Nolanesque visuals. Working once again with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Interstellar), Nolan fills the screen with massive machinery set against vast backdrops; the sight of waves rolling backwards against ships (rather than breaking before them) is the image from Tenet I’ll likely always remember. That the moment takes place beneath an endless array of ocean wind turbines is just one of the globe-hopping locales that bring to mind a Bond flick.
Indeed, Tenet works best early on when it’s having the most fun with 007 tropes. (Robert Pattinson, who seems to be riffing on a young Roger Moore, gives my favorite performance.) The Protagonist’s investigation begins with a series of meetings with swanky, international movers and shakers, almost all of whom immediately question his legitimacy. The implication that this is because he’s Black is confirmed by the quip he offers when he’s forcibly dragged into a restaurant’s kitchen by the goons of a Russian arms dealer: “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago.” Naming him The Protagonist, something that’s noted by characters here and there, also seems a side eye to mainstream Hollywood’s history of relegating Black actors to sidekicks.
Yet if Washington shows promise as an American 007 for the 21st century, the movie ultimately underserves him. Once the physics lessons kick in, he’s often reduced to being a passive listener as things are explained (something that also happened to Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar). We learn little more about The Protagonist, from the screenplay or the performance. Instead, much of the emotional weight of the story gets transferred to Elizabeth Debicki as Kat, the wife of the aforementioned arms dealer. (I won’t reveal who plays the dealer, as the film seems to want it to be a surprise.) Estranged from her husband yet stuck in his web in order to stay close to their young son, Kat is meant to be the human face of the movie’s war games. Debicki has the chops to handle it—there are some affecting moments where Kat’s steely resolve cracks—but it’s still not fair for Nolan to have one character carry this big of a burden.
I’m fairly certain that Tenet, ultimately, makes sense. Its failures are not ones of incompetence, but unrestrained intelligence. One of Nolan’s greatest attributes as a filmmaker is his trust in the intellect of mainstream audiences—audiences who have rewarded that trust by making challenging, original works like Inception huge hits. This time, though, it might have been smart to dumb things down a bit.