First off, let’s shoot the elephant in the room with an irradiated reverse flow bullet: Nobody should be encouraging anybody to sit in a crowded room for two and a half hours in 2020, no matter how much blood, sweat and treasure has gone into the shiny object that would unite strangers in such an endeavor. Hard stop. Second, let’s imagine that instead of the supposed heady intellectualism that Christopher Nolan attacks the action movie genre with, perhaps on Tenet he cradled a bong for six months while playing Hitman 2 and strung together a series of game inspired missions while grafting some timey-wimey stuff—you know, some of that patented weird Nolan shit—onto the proceedings. Not likely part of his process, but as one watches the increasingly ludicrous and delightful setpieces of this film unspool at a breakneck pace, you have to wonder. The fact of the matter is games like that are inspired by the hoary old boy’s club film franchise of Bond, James Bond, so the bleed through feels pretty on point. We finally have Christopher Nolan’s 007 movie, and boy is it something.
The filmmaker’s rise from indie puzzle box darling to Spielberg level showman is well documented and mileage can vary wildly from viewer to viewer. After learning to shoot and cut action on the Batman franchise, he’s gone on to weld high concepts to big explosions time and again, blasting the audience with a combination of overwrought explication and dazzling visuals. After Tenet, it’s tough to see him quite topping this combo formula. As many have speculated, Tenet does indeed feel like a spiritual if not literal sequel to Inception, that bullet riddled thriller involved less with traditional crime than a downright magical ability to run around in other people’s dreams. Without getting into too much detail, this time it’s about time, the bending of, that is. We’re introduced to a crackerjack paramilitary agent played with cool to spare by John David Washington, a movie star growing up before our very eyes here. He’s on a complicated extraction mission that, in a Nolan-esque twist, actually serves as a test of sorts to see if he can level up to face the most dangerous challenge staring down humanity. Shadowy allies appear to guide him through a variety of international missions, all moving towards getting on the radar of a vicious Russian oligarch played with scenery chewing aplomb by Kenneth Branaugh. Nolan seems to hear his critics and flip bird in their direction as he slowly rolls out the tricky sci fi concept; several times the opportunity to explain what’s going on is gamely mocked by Washington or rushed through by a bored walk on player. It’s as if the filmmaker knows what he’s doing is mind boggling enough that if we just latch onto the broad concept, we’ll thrill to the ride.
But do we? I more or less did, watching Tenet at home as one should in 2020 and dissecting the film/game references with my son. While the IMAX level crazyness would have been great fun on a large screen and I hope to experience the film in that format someday soon, having the opportunity to throw around theories as we saw it brought the overwhelming insanity of the proceedings down to a manageable level. Not to say we chattered through the thing; I was often on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next. Probably the wisest choice made here is to latch onto that James Bond model. We have a super agent, we have a fanatical villain (Nolan leans in here like he rarely does), we have fortresses to be stormed and heists to be executed. We also have a refreshingly female heavy cast for this kind of exercise, and a diversity of faces not often seen at this big budget level of actioner. You’ll also find a variety of familiar thematic elements from Inception and elsewhere in this director’s resume on display: The threat of separation from a beloved child, the chance to start a new life without the baggage of the past, the need to punch and shoot your way through pretty much every situation. I’ll never agree with Nolan’s push to get people into the theater for Tenet or any other film in this, the toughest of years (to be fair, the film does encourage mask wearing at times). But after watching it I can see why this of all his films felt the most urgent to get in front of the masses. For better or for worse, we have the filmmaker’s obsessions writ large over every second of this movie.