There’s no getting around the oddness of seeing Christopher Nolan’s Tenet at home instead of in a theater. Arguably more than any other filmmaker, his creations are meant to be experienced on the largest screen possible, and while some of the spectacle of his latest dense adventure is lost in a COVID-deterring, relaxed living-room setting, his ambition — which improbably seems to grow with each new project — is evident throughout.
At once wildly entertaining and immensely frustrating, Tenet gets off to a rollicking start with the film’s unnamed CIA agent protagonist (John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman) on a complex rescue mission at the Kyiv Opera — a jaw-dropping sequence that sees no less than an entire seated audience collapse in balletic synchrony upon inhaling sleeping gas.
Presumed dead in the event’s aftermath, our hero groggily awakens to his boss Fay (Martin Donovan, Inherent Vice) giving him a new highly classified assignment in which the titular word will open “the right doors and some of the wrong ones.”
From there, the film transitions from a mysterious but fairly straightforward action/adventure to something far more intricate, as a series of characters inform the protagonist about a war being waged by residents of the future on their ancestors, resulting in “inverted” objects — and people — traveling backward through time and appearing to be in reverse to folks who are moving forward as usual. Before long, we witness such creative sights as bullets flying back into guns and hand-to-hand combat with adversaries whose flipped movements make them especially slippery.
While Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography and the imaginative set pieces remain stunning to behold, the logic of Tenet becomes so difficult to follow that it begins to detract from the film’s enjoyment — or it would if Nolan didn’t keep tossing out exciting visuals to keep viewers engaged and challenged.
The filmmaker dares viewers to keep pace as the protagonist partners with fellow agent Neil (Robert Pattinson, easily giving his best performance thus far) — with whom he scales walls in Mumbai, navigates vehicles driving in “reverse” on Estonian highways and breaks into a heavily guarded sector of the Oslo airport.
Keeping up, however, is akin to the experience of watching the director’s similarly trippy Inception (which does a much better job at its exposition by immediately illustrating its points) while another Nolan film (say, The Dark Knight) simultaneously happens off to the side — and it all matters.
Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.
Nolan’s approach to his characters explaining the science — a task that frequently finds Washington struggling with the cumbersome dialogue — bounces between Looper’s refreshing “I’m not here to talk about time travel” stance and a TED Talk from Stephen Hawking.
In addition to Tenet’s murky accessibility, the process of deciphering the narrative’s core principles is hampered by the confounding lengths the protagonist goes to protect Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) — the disgruntled wife of Russian arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh, nicely atoning for Murder on the Orient Express and Artemis Fowl), the future’s conduit to the present.
Fortunately, the details coalesce sufficiently in the final minutes when additional revelations arise, and things all grow clearer as one sits, post-credits, with the gradually settling cyclone of information, but it’s too much to satisfactorily parse out in the moment and basically necessitates a second viewing.
It’s debatable whether the movie’s convolutions are a mark of brilliant, layered, pioneering filmmaking or a shortcoming of overambition and a failure to provide sufficient cues for comprehension in a standard single viewing, though in typical innovating Nolan fashion, both perspectives seem partially correct.
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