Christopher Nolan makes puzzle boxes. They are complex. They are ornate. And just as with actual puzzle boxes, the success of his films lies somewhere at the nexus of determination, comprehension and faith for those who encounter it. A willingness to forge ahead, to try and make sense of this particular puzzle (in Nolan’s case, usually several interwoven puzzles), requires an increasing understanding of what the rules are and persevering faith both that the underlying mechanisms actually work and what is hidden in the box will be worth all that effort in the first place.
So what kind of puzzle box is Tenet? At first glance, it’s a lot like Inception. The central conceit that powers it is both cerebral and requires copious on-screen exposition. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Nolan’s films always have at least one person trying to get their head around what exactly is going on, and it makes sense the audience would be as confused as the Protagonist (John David Washington), especially early on. Also, as with Inception, Tenet is basically a series of heists—smaller puzzle boxes within the larger one—which means while the viewer may not understand exactly what’s going on big picture, they will find the immediate action briskly paced and compellingly presented.
Finally, like Inception, Tenet boasts strong performances from an A-list cast (in ability if not box office draw). As antagonist Andrei Sator, Kenneth Branagh is especially riveting, chewing each scene with such gusto and menace you feel sorry for anything caught in his jaws. This makes the fear and despair of his estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, allowed here to be tall), less tired clichéd obstacle to overcome and more, “Can ya blame her?” (In the annals of menacing criminals played by British thespians, Branagh’s performance belongs up there with Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan in Sexy Beast and Michael Gambon’s Albert Spica in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.)
Still, Branagh’s fire by itself isn’t enough to provide emotional heat to Tenet. The cerebral underpinnings and exact mechanics of this particular puzzle may demand more from the filmmaker than the audience, but no amount of painstakingly crafted “time-inverted” action sequences nor Ludwig Göransson’s sweeping score can fill that hole occupied by a sympathetic main character. None of this rests on Washington. Past Nolan protagonists like McConaughey (Interstellar), Pearce (Memento) and DiCaprio (Inception) not only had actual names, they had relatable motives and discernible emotional arcs. And though personal growth and emotional depth are hardly necessary ingredients in a spy thriller—just look at Bond, classic Bond—with so much else about Nolan’s script a mental exercise made real, some emotional stakes would be helpful to bring it alive.
Ultimately, for a filmmaker whose movies thrive both on the question, “What exactly is happening?” and its corollary, “What will happen next?” Tenet’s twists felt rather predictable. This could just be due to the reading and viewing habits of this particular viewer, but it also feels like something more is at play. The tropes which fuel Nolan’s latest creation are actually more familiar to the modern movie-going audience than dreamscapes and the physics of interstellar travel. While there have been other movies dealing with memory and dreams and even the malleability of time in regard to space exploration, the cinemascape is saturated with time-related shenanigans ranging from high-brow to low-brow—all the brows, really. So while I entered the screening with a real sense of anticipation and wonder—like I approach all Nolan offerings—once things were underway, the “what comes next” was conspicuously absent.
Still, if there’s one message all Nolan films convey, and one time in the context of a movie review where this is not a cop out: Your individual experience may well vary.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh
Release Date: September 3, 2020
Michael Burgin is the Movies Editor for Paste. He missed Zimmer more than he thought he would.