Genre: Sci-Fi Adventure Running Time: 2 hrs. 30 min.
Release Date: September 3rd, 2020 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Christopher Nolan Actors: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Dimple Kapadia, Clemence Poesy, Michael Caine
eavily armed gunmen lay siege to the National Opera House in Ukraine, concussively storming the aisles, smashing instruments, planting bombs, and terrorizing the patrons. But mere seconds after they penetrate the building, SWAT-like soldiers, apparently working with the CIA, descend upon the area as well, working to exfiltrate an asset concealing a curious device in coat check. This opening sequence is patently designed to rival the bank robbery from “The Dark Knight,” but it’s never as riveting or straightforward; here, there’s a switch, compromised agents, a double-cross, and operational failures, all leading to kidnapping, torture, and death – none of which is evident as it’s happening. “Welcome to the afterlife.”
“Your duty transcends national interests.” Ultimately, everything is a test of sorts to determine that an unnamed protagonist (John David Washington) is fit for a top secret mission so twisty that it’s difficult – and perhaps pointless – to spell out. It’s essentially summed up as preventing World War III. From these initial moments, things move quickly – too quickly, in fact, leaving far more questions than answers. It doesn’t help that the thundering, percussive soundtrack, which nicely amplifies action sequences, tends to drown out bits of dialogue that contain brief explanations that are probably indispensable.
A few explicit elucidations do arrive, but they’re verbose and specialized. Inverse radiation through nuclear fission creates inverted materials described as “the detritus of a coming war.” Expectedly, the plot’s crypticness is matched only by scientists’ intricate exposition, neither of which are scrutinized by the characters themselves. “Don’t try to understand it,” suggests a technician (Clemence Poesy) – just one of numerous personas who appear for a single scene to inform the protagonist of some detail before disappearing from the picture altogether – stating out loud one of the obvious problems with a convoluted premise.
Comparably baffling is the editing in the first act, which has scenes begin as if partway through before cutting off abruptly as if unfinished, creating an artificially fast pace and a good deal of disorientation. “Tenet” doesn’t want viewers to think about what’s going on to a considerable degree; instead, it wants them to sit back and soak in the experience of brokers with the future tracking down clues and interacting with the past in action-packed ordeals. This is never more apparent than when the hero needs to have a few words with an arms dealer, complexly requiring a bungee cord for the infiltration and for escaping from the authorities.
Genuine tension and suspense do crop up to even out the long-winded exchanges, however, but they’re of the overly manufactured variety, oftentimes utilizing visually intimidating people boasting tattoos, leather jackets, shaved heads, and unfazed grimaces. By the time the damsel in distress ( Elizabeth Debicki as Katherine Barton) finally confronts the primary villain (Kenneth Branagh as her permanently disgruntled, exhaustingly ferocious husband), they’re plainly anticipated characters in a melange of blackmail, murder, fistfights, covert ops, reconnaissance, heists, car chases, and explosions. The budget is enormous and the imagery doesn’t disappoint; exotic locales and elaborate sets remind of the last few James Bond adventures.
“At this point, nothing surprises.” Eventually, the elements of “reverse chronology” become clearer as the protagonists are attacked by the future, taking a few notes from “Looper” and “Timecop” while commenting on the grandfather paradox and physically connecting with a past version of oneself – but most of it is utterly inscrutable. Footage played backwards and action sequences involving moving in both directions of time concurrently are bizarre but captivating, building to a climax that is terribly thrilling despite continuing to make little sense (even when a commander briefs his troops on what they’re about to do, it’s still confusing). Audiences will want the heroes to succeed, even if they’re unsure exactly when or how they’re winning, which is a testament to director Christopher Nolan’s sense of adventure. But many of the solutions remain just as puzzling as the explanations. Sadly, only faithful fans of his films will enjoy rewatching “Tenet” until they pick up on a few of the revelations, while everyone else will likely be content walking away mystified and only marginally entertained. “I’ll see you in the beginning, friend.”
– Mike Massie