Christopher Nolan has a thing for time. Call it a love affair, if you like, or a dangerous liaison. From his early outings (the stylishly-fragmented Memento) to his newer blockbusters (the wormhole-ridden Interstellar), the director has placed chronology—or lack thereof—in the spotlight. Tenet marks the mesmerizing apex of his temporal fixation, an international espionage flick in which time doesn’t simply run out, but backwards, too. An early scene shows a bullet being sucked back into a gun barrel—an awesome visual, but how can this be? Did we crash the ballistics demo on Opposite Day? No, but the solution is similarly surreal. “Don’t try to understand it,” a lab coat-clad Clémence Poésy remarked (How amazing it is to watch someone listen to a scientist!). Instead, we should “feel it.” The message is clear: leave logic at the door and just have fun.
With Nolan’s usual musical partner Hans Zimmer tied up scoring Dune, Tenet drops the maestro’s trademark pipe organ swells for an electronica-infused soundtrack courtesy of Ludwig Göransson. The recent Emmy-winner, fresh from Disney’s The Mandalorian, flexes his talents yet again with a bombastic accompaniment that reflects the film’s time-bending concepts in its motifs—he uses retrograde composition to create palindromic melodies… or so I’m told. If that sounds too complicated, well, it’s just the tip of the mind-melting iceberg. I’ve barely even attempted to describe Tenet’s plot, a blistering Bondian storyline featuring a looming armageddon, reverse car chases, and a plane crash that—in typical Nolan fashion—was done for real. Fasten your seatbelt, because this spectacular action picture has no brake line.
There’s a curious anonymity to Tenet’s 007 analogue. This “Protagonist” (that’s how he’s billed in the credits) has no name, no number, but buckets of wit and athleticism to boot—he’ll dish out a zinger, concuss a kitchen full of goons, and saunter out with barely a scratch. Somehow we like him, despite hardly knowing him, a feat of John David Washington’s Herculean performance. He’s our trusted pilot through Tenet’s choppier waters, a super-spy who, for once, is allowed to be as confused as we are. Rounding out the main cast are Robert Pattinson, on top form as dapper agent Neil, Kenneth Branagh, who exudes theatrical terror as Russian billionaire Andrei Sator, and Elizabeth Debicki, who dexterously handles the film’s emotional core in her turn as art appraiser Kat.
It remains to be seen whether Tenet will triumph or wane in the current moviegoing landscape. Sadly, the latter appears more likely. You won’t find it on streaming—Nolan, a loyal guardian of the traditional theatrical experience, has hinted at his distaste for the likes of Netflix in the past. The resurgence of drive-ins makes vehicular viewing an option for some, and for others, socially-distanced theater-going will be a safe enough choice. But with several major blockbusters having abandoned their 2020 release dates, it seems the proof wasn’t in the pudding. It’s a real shame—in more normal times, Tenet ought to have succeeded. Like the hundreds of movie theatres about to burrow into hibernation, let’s hope it’s something our future selves will safely rediscover. Time, as ever, will tell.