Christopher Nolan is back with another byzantine science fiction film as he attempts to revive the theatrical experience this summer. The writer-director behind Memento, Inception, Interstellar and The Dark Knight-trilogy has built a successful career by melding big ideas to blockbuster spectacle, and his latest film is amongst his most ambitious yet. Tenet stars John David Washington (BlackKklansman) as the Protagonist tasked with saving the world with the help of Robert Pattinson’s dapper handler.
This being a Christopher Nolan film, things are far from straight forward. We open at the opera in Kiev, where Washington’s character joins a CIA operation to end a siege and retrieve some radioactive material. Things go awry, but rather than give up his colleagues, our protagonist chooses to ingest what he believes is a suicide pill — an act that confirms his loyalty and leads to his induction into a team of agents and military men dedicated to saving the world.
So far, so simple. That is until he is taken to a research lab where Clémence Poésy’s scientist introduces him to the concept of an inverted bullet — literally a bullet that travels backwards in time — along with the “detritus of a future war.” It is soon apparent that bullets are not the only objects that can be inverted. “As I understand it we are trying to prevent WWIII.” he’s told. Nuclear holocaust? “No, something worse.”
If that sounds a little bleak at the moment, then don’t worry; the apocalyptic scenario that Washington’s protagonist is tasked with preventing is far removed from current headlines. It involves time-bending espionage and the gathering of classified materials held by world superpowers, all orchestrated by vicious Russian billionaire and arms dealer, Andrei Sator — Kenneth Branagh, with an accent. Handily, help comes courtesy of Andrei’s alienated wife, Kat (a wonderful Elizabeth Debicki), an art dealer held hostage by the existence of a fake Goya drawing and her dedication to her young son.
Nolan has been repeatedly touted as a future James Bond director and it is easy to see why. Tenet takes us to gourmet London restaurants, bungee jumping up buildings in India, to an Oslo freeport and a yacht moored off the Amalfi Coast. The eye-popping globe-trotting is accompanied by slick tailoring — Brooks Brothers won’t do, explains Michael Caine’s intelligence agent — and slicker action. Shoot outs, fist fights and car chases are bested only by a heist that hinges upon literally driving an aeroplane into a building.
As Tenet escalates its temporal technology there is room for mind-bending set pieces and choreography that quite simply has not been attempted on screen before.
But there is a sense that Nolan would only be limited by Bond. As Tenet escalates its temporal technology there is room for mind-bending set pieces and choreography that quite simply has not been attempted on screen before. It’s ambitious stuff, and thrilling on a moment to moment basis, but it can feel mechanical, as if it has all been worked out on a blackboard. There’s little grace amongst the grit, and while the films stock characters are somewhat shaded in by the superior performers, it is hard to locate any real feeling as exposition follows action follows exposition.
This is undoubtedly a Christopher Nolan film though, and a pretty good one too. The filmmaker is renowned for his prevailing obsessions with time and structure, and ardent fans will surely delight in deconstructing the palindromic plotting over multiple viewings. For the rest of us, there’s plenty to marvel at. The audacious action makes this worth a trip to the cinema alone, should you feel comfortable doing so, while there are myriad pleasures to be found in the lush location work and solid movie star turns from central trio Washington, Pattinson and Debicki.