Christopher Nolan is one of those writer-directors whom critics like to accuse of being too “cerebral”, even “cautious”. Almost all of his films are puzzle boxes, playing with time, space and memory, and these commentators argue that much human warmth is lost in the coolly humming components of the plots.
Such were the criticisms leveled at his most recent film, “Tenet,” which proved particularly difficult for audiences to embrace, but if you give its complexity a chance (and a second viewing), you might find it one of his best works.
“Tenet” has the basics of a global spy movie, but the relatively standard spy vs. oligarch plot is welded together with a plethora of scholarly concepts: the flow of time and entropy, existential determination and even change. climatic. . To that end, the main plot is relatively simple: while attempting to extract a spy from a terrorist siege of the kyiv Opera House, a CIA agent known only as the protagonist (John David Washington ) is nearly hit by a ball that appears to be moving. rearward. A few minutes later, he is captured and tortured, but commits suicide by pill before breaking down. Then he wakes up to find that the pill was a “test” and that he’s been enlisted by a mysterious organization to find out the source of the bullets accelerating in the opposite direction (a concept the characters refer to as “inversion”).
The protagonist tracks the bullets to an arms dealer in Mumbai, where he is linked to Neil (Robert Pattinson, post-“Twilight” and pre-Batman), sent by the organization as a handler. They trace the arms dealer’s bullets to a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator. As the protagonist digs deeper, he discovers that Sator is blackmailing his estranged wife, Kat; he uses this information to infiltrate Sator’s life and criminal works, eventually discovering that the oligarch is in communication with the distant future. And people in the far future want to do something terrible to the present world.
That’s pretty much spoiled the plot for now; suffice it to say that bullets aren’t the only time-traveling objects. One of the biggest sets in the film is a freeway chase in which vehicles crash, only to flip over and come back together. At another point, the protagonist gets into a fight in the hallway with a “reverse man” who punches, shoots, and even slides on the upside-down floors:
Nolan admitted in a pre-release interview that he wanted to use “the public’s ease of following the conventions of [the spy movie genre] to push it into interesting and unexpected territory. Which is a nice idea in theory, but even with those familiar conventions, “Tenet” is often difficult to watch the first time around, requiring the audience’s concentration to sort out what’s going on – in addition to time-related stuff, the espionage plot elements have their own layers and nuances.
Most of the film’s vital information is provided via lengthy speeches, but even those big chunks of exposition don’t provide everything the audience needs. Like many movies that attempt to grapple with the plastic nature of time, many of its vanities threaten to crumble if you think about it too much; Neil and the protagonist sometimes stop and shrug their shoulders in frustration, as ignorant as the audience of the ramifications of communicating with the distant future or returning to the past.
It’s a testament to the influence of Christopher Nolan that Warner Bros. unlocked the $200 million budget for a film that is gloriously shot and pyrotechnic at times, but also demands that audiences meet it on their own terms. Nolan also pushed his studio to release the film theatrically in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, calculating the film’s earnings would give theaters a much-needed boost (it ended up making just over $350 million, which is probably a lot less than it would have made in a non-pandemic summer). But often it feels like his least talked about movie, the one no one has seen or really liked.
And it’s a shame, because despite its convoluted plot and dense theorizing, “Tenet” has a real heart, one that’s easy to miss on your first viewing. Towards the very end, the true relationship between two characters is finally revealed. It’s a deep and moving moment, one that completely overhauls everything you’ve just watched. but coming into the penultimate scene, he’s also shaking about to feel like a throwaway, one last “gotcha!” move from director to audience.
Thanks to this scene, “Tenet” becomes a very different movie on its second viewing, once you recognize the intensity of the connection between the characters. Every conversation and look exchanged between the two of them carries a new story; it’s no longer just a story of time-manipulating spies, a cold mix of Ian Fleming and Richard Feynman, it’s also a love that transcends time. You realize Nolan is trying to move away from the tired deceased wife/girlfriend/parents trope that has driven the emotional engine of so many of his other films – and while you could argue the script structure sabotages his efforts, it also shows that he is still growing as a creator, despite all the resounding successes.
It’s also normal that a film about rewinding and moving forward in time should be watched at least twice for maximum emotional impact. If you watched “Tenet” once and didn’t particularly like it, or didn’t understand what was going on, give it another chance; on the second viewing, it turns into something new and touching, even warm.