Movie Review: Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ will mess with your mind, and it might save the multiplex

Six months after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down cinemas worldwide, the first real-deal Hollywood blockbuster is hitting screens this weekend in select markets around the globe (sorry, U.S. fans) and the expectations couldn’t be higher. 

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet not only has to live up with the expectations of coming from one of Hollywood’s most innovative directors – something that a film like Interstellar, no matter how good in other regards, failed to do for most – but also being the first big movie most people will be watching in a cinema in more than six months. 

But if any movie could bring the multiplexes out of the COVID-19 depression, it’s this one: Tenet is the kind of labyrinthine head trip that asks a lot of its viewers, and demands repeat viewings to fully make sense of it all. And after months of hype, it will continue to generate months of discourse as viewers try to work out its puzzle-box plotting and mumbo-jumbo science. 

Like Nolan’s Inception, where characters enter each other’s dreams to play with their minds, the key gimmick to Tenet is easy enough to grasp: someone in the future has figured out a way to invert the entropy of objects and perhaps even people, sending them literally backwards through time.

In a three-minute sequence, scientist Laura (Clémence Poésy) explains it all to our unnamed protagonist, a high-level CIA operative played by John David Washington. A magic bullet from the future flies back into his gun as he pulls the trigger. The bullet will leap into his hand – but only if he has released it in the future. Has he?

“Don’t think too hard about it,” Laura tells him. Good advice for the us, too. 

In the Protagonist’s timeline, he’s seeing objects make their way back through time, like bullets flying back into a gun. But there are also pieces of the big weapon – the device that inverts entropy – out there travelling backwards into the hands of a Russian arms dealer. And with the help of some super-secret special ops teams, he has to prevent that arms dealer from piecing together the big bad weapon and, you know, blowing up the world. 

It’s all rather straightforward, but then we get to the gobbledygook of Nolan’s narrative, with characters flying around through back and forth through time, their actions governed by a  fleeting science that not even the characters in the movie understand. But most of the fun in Tenet is trying to piece together what exactly is going on in this wild, wild ride. 

Case in point: Tenet culminates two big action set pieces that feature characters moving both forwards and backwards in time, and we’re sitting there trying to follow two timelines at once and working out the intricacies of how they interact with each other. In an exhilarating experience, and quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. 

Washington makes for a solid protagonist at the center of Tenet, but Robert Pattinson threatens to steal the show from him as his increasingly-involved co-agent – and frequently does. There’s no time wasted on character exposition in Tenet, but Pattinson subtly hints at a nuanced characterization and walks away with some of the best scenes in the movie; a decade after Twilight, the actor is in the midst of a career reconnaissance with the kind of work he puts in here and in last year’s The Lighthouse (not to mention a scene-stealing turn in Netflix’s The King). 

Kenneth Branagh, meanwhile, is less than entirely menacing as the big bad Russian arms dealer, and even somewhat sympathetic at times; his colorful henchmen often deliver more of a threat. Elizabeth Debicki plays his put-upon and abused wife, who the Protagonist recruits into operation; Michael Caine shows up for a brief scene to point Washington’s character in the right direction. 

Ludwig Göransson’s thumping bass-heavy soundtrack successfully recreates the kind of thumping score provided by usual Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, but it’s mixed too high and even drowns out the dialogue at times. I was happy to have subtitles on the screen during a Prague screening. 

Tenet is a full 150-minutes long, and while it can be frustrating to keep up with the minutiae of what’s happening in every complex scene, it’s never boring for a minute. I’m not entirely sure it succeeds in every area it intends, but I do know that audiences will be talking about this one for months to come. Tenet is the perfect event movie, and just what the multiplexes need right now.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.