Some films are being consigned to streaming platforms and others are being held back until the winter and beyond, but Warner Bros. has stuck with its plan that “Tenet” should be a summer blockbuster — or a very-late-summer blockbuster, at least. This is a risky strategy, given how nervous people might be about sitting in a room with a group of strangers for two and a half hours, but Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction extravaganza has the spectacle and the apocalyptic “event movie” grandiosity to tempt people into cinemas.
Besides, there is one solid reason why “Tenet” could make a profit: Even if not many people pay to see it, some of those people will pay to see it again and again and again in the hope that, eventually, they will be able to work out what on earth is going on.
“Tenet” will prompt much post-viewing head-scratching and diagram-scribbling, but at its heart is the simple if outlandish idea that some mysterious objects move backwards through time at the same speed as everything else moves forward. An unnamed CIA agent referred to in the credits as The Protagonist (John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”) is told about these objects by a lab-coated scientist (Clémence Poésy) who wisely advises him, “Don’t try to understand it.”
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If he did try to understand it, he would probably laugh in her face, but Nolan gets away with his illogical central concept, as he did in “Inception,” by having all his characters accept it without hesitation. As soon as the scientist shows the Protagonist a bullet which flies into a gun barrel rather than out of it, they talk about “inverted material” and “inverted munitions” with straight faces, and in Poésy’s case, a tetchy air of boredom, as if temporal anomalies were covered on the first day of spy school.
The search for the source of these time-rewinding devices leads to a diabolical Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) with a miserable trophy wife (Elizabeth Debicki, playing much the same gilded-cage bird as she did on BBC/AMC’s “The Night Manager” in 2016). But before anyone can broach the topic of “inverted munitions,” the Protagonist has to zip off on various other missions with his apparently limitless funds and his astoundingly capable British sidekick (Robert Pattinson).
“Tenet” is one of those slick wish-fulfillment fantasies in which someone will say that he needs four trucks, 10 men and a suitcase full of explosives to pull off a heist, and in the next scene, everything he has asked for will be ready and waiting. No equipment is unavailable; no henchmen are held up at customs. Dialogue is pared down to perfunctory exposition, and the characters hop from India to Italy to Norway to Ukraine so easily that they might as well have a teleporter stashed next to their inverted munitions.
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In other words, “Tenet” is a glossy international espionage thriller, which, like “Inception,” pays elaborate homage to the James Bond series. Nolan delivers nearly everything you might expect from the genre, from gorgeously scenic locations to frantic car chases, from brutal restaurant-kitchen fights to — best of all — a bungee jump up instead of down a Mumbai skyscraper. It’s exhilarating, in a “Fast & Furious” sort of way, especially as so many of the stunts are done for real rather than with CGI.
It helps, too, that the swaggering Washington and the smirking Pattinson make a likable double act. But it all happens so quickly, with such brief explanations and so little breathing space, that the story is tough to follow, and therefore tough to care about. Viewers will suddenly find that they aren’t invested in the action because they’re still confused about why everyone was discussing plutonium and algorithms in the previous scene, and who everyone was in the opening opera-house showdown. And that’s before they get to the time travel.
Nolan, who wrote as well as directed “Tenet,” keeps the “inverted material” as a vague McGuffin for almost two hours, concentrating instead on the Bondish battle of wits between the Protagonist and the Russian oligarch. It’s only in the last half hour that he finally focuses on what “Doctor Who” classifies as the “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.” The result is, again, so rushed as to be incomprehensible.
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There is enjoyably puzzling fun to be had along the way. As he did in “Memento,” Nolan folds over the narrative so you have to think again about earlier scenes, and he employs one of the oldest yet most spellbinding of all cinematic techniques: running footage in reverse, so birds fly back the way they came, and explosions shrink into the ground.
But to quote Poésy’s scientist, “Don’t try to think about it.” The rules of time travel seem to be rewritten with every scene, and the climactic set piece involves crowds of identical commandos, their faces hidden by helmets, hurtling around a dusty battlefield where time is going backward, forward and possibly sideways simultaneously. It’s exciting to watch buildings crumbling and then reassembling themselves immediately afterward, but if the three concurrent time frames in “Dunkirk” or the shuffled structure of “Memento” baffled you, then “Tenet” will have you pleading for an aspirin and a long lie-down.
There aren’t many directors who would be entrusted with such a massive, globe-trotting, brain-teasing production — at least one that isn’t based on a Marvel comic, anyway. Nolan’s go-for-broke ambition should be celebrated. But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that “Tenet” amounts, ultimately, to a Bond knock-off with a sci-fi gimmick.
It may echo the cleverness of Rian Johnson’s “Looper” and Shane Carruth’s “Primer” in its dizzying disregard for linear chronology, but the plotting is muddled rather than complex, with less to say about the flow of time than “Interstellar” or “Memento.” In the end, “Tenet” isn’t one of Nolan’s most satisfying films. But after I’ve seen it four or five more times, maybe I’ll change my mind.