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John David Washington stars as the unnamed protagonist in Christopher Nolan's Tenet.Warner Bros.

  • Tenet
  • Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
  • Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki
  • Classification PG; 150 minutes


3.5 out of 4 stars

“Don’t try to understand it.” Those words are uttered early in Christopher Nolan’s new genre-crossing extravaganza Tenet, and they are directed at the film’s heroes as much as they are at the audience. Tenet is not so much a decipherable thriller as it is an extreme exercise in reverse-engineered narrative incomprehensibility – the cinematic equivalent of a half-baked pretzel, its goopy symmetrical loops superficial yet delicious all the same. We’re never meant to know what exactly is going on at any one moment, but we will be – we must be – entertained by the overwhelming nonsense of it all. Death by disorientation. Life by explosions.

This all helps turn Tenet into the most Christopher Nolan-y thing that Christopher Nolan has ever made. In addition to a brain-bending conceit that makes Inception’s nightmare logic seem like a child‘s simple daydream (and which I’ll attempt to summarize in a moment, once I brush up on my quantum physics), Tenet arrives like a 150-minute supercut of Nolan quirks and quarks.

There are spectacular action scenes filmed in exotic international locales, all captured in gloriously intimidating Imax. There are never-smiling men engaging in acts of ultra-serious violence. An obsession with the super-wealthy. A booming score so floor-shaking that it drowns out almost all the dialogue. A plot point fixed on the separation of a parent and child. And while there are no dead wives à la Nolan’s Following, Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Interstellar, there is an abused wife. Oh, and Michael Caine is here, too.

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Elizabeth Debicki, left, and Kenneth Branagh are part of an impressive cast.Warner Bros.

If you detest Christopher Nolan movies, you already know that Tenet is not for you. But if you love Christopher Nolan movies – if you can’t help but embrace his knack for slick spectacle at the same time that your throat tightens up with the realization of what chunky plot nonsense he is asking you to once again swallow – then Tenet is a divine offering from the movie gods in these troubled times. Myself, I’ll continue to pray at the altar of the almighty madman from Westminster, conscious of the fact that I have no one but myself to blame for such ludicrous zealotry.

At least, though, it is original ludicrousness. Focusing on the concept of “inversion” – which is like time travel, but not really – Tenet takes an idea that could be conjured up by a stoner in cargo shorts and refines it into the language of a gent sporting a Brioni three-piece. Basically, the film posits that objects, even people, can have their entropy reversed, which in Tenet’s case means that bullets can fly back into a gun’s chamber, and that car chases can involve one vehicle ramming forward while the other speeds backwards. Whatever inversion is, it is up to Tenet’s nameless CIA agent hero (John David Washington) to figure out who is receiving backwards intelligence and inverted weapons from the future, in the hopes of preventing a complete erasure of the present.

Somehow, this involves Washington’s protagonist (who is called The Protagonist in the film’s official credits) going on a scavenger mission across the globe, Carmen Sandiego-style. Quickly, he comes across a Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh), the arms dealer’s estranged art-appraiser wife (Elizabeth Debicki), a shady-slick operative (Robert Pattinson) in the Tom-Hardy-in-Inception mould and a Goya painting that may or may not be a forgery and whose MacGuffin-like presence in the film Nolan may or may not fully understand himself.

Listen: So very much of Tenet does not make sense. Not in a “You have to watch it two or three times to get it” kind of way. It is complete ridiculousness, full stop. Just one example: We’re told late in the game that anyone who undergoes inversion – that is, whose body moves backward in the flow of time after they hop inside a mysterious giant centrifuge – must wear an oxygen mask because their lungs cannot handle the inverted air. Okay, whatever, fine, yes. But then one character spends a large amount of their inverted time breathing free and clear. If you were frustrated by Inception’s fuzzy rules (why isn’t the third level of Cobb’s dream affected by the atmosphere of the second?) then Tenet’s playbook will lead to you to fruitlessly shout at the heavens, asking why hast Christopher Nolan forsaken thou.

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The film features an abundance of explosive set-pieces.Warner Bros.

But that doesn’t mean Tenet isn’t still one hell of a ride. Approximately every five minutes, Nolan unleashes a new and extravagant set piece of magnificent destruction, most of it CGI-free. He invades opera houses, destroys highways and blows up a real-deal 747 jet just for the hell of it. It is wonderful and visceral tentpole artistry executed on a grand scale. Everything just looks so ... expensive. Clean and sharp and polished, but with an air of effortlessness, too, as if wholesale chaos was the most natural thing in Nolan’s world. Every dollar that Warner Bros. tossed the director’s way is right up there on the screen. It is Succession crossed with Inception. It is exceptionally rich filmmaking.

This helps gloss over the movie’s other flaws. The Protagonist is as much a cipher as his name suggests, and there is little point in investing any emotional energy into whether he lives or dies. Debicki’s character is a collection of “I just want my kids back!” clichés. And, as much as I genuinely enjoyed Ludwig Goransson’s assaultive score, which successfully out-Zimmers Hans Zimmer, Nolan once again decides to muddy his film’s sound mix so that the soundtrack overwhelms the dialogue, some of which seems mighty pertinent to untangling the knotty plot.

But, well, Nolan is going to Nolan. In an artistic marketplace that forces blockbuster filmmakers to favour intellectual property over even a sliver of originality, the director manages to find new and exciting ways to enthrall and beguile. He still has a perfect eye for casting (Pattinson and Branagh delight and surprise), and everything overwhelms in just the right way.

Although it seems as if the future of Hollywood rests upon the film’s shoulders – there has been no discussion about moviegoing in the age of COVID-19 that has not involved Nolan – and although the movie contains so many unintentional reminders of the world we’re living in, including a scene where an entire theatre’s audience is placed in harm’s way for simply enjoying a night out, Tenet offers a complete and magnificent escape. Just don’t try to understand it.

Tenet opens in theatres across Canada on Aug. 26

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