Despite being delayed three times due to COVID-19, Christopher Nolan’s latest film has remained impervious to leaks and arrives fully cloaked in mystery. Its cryptic synopsis states that “an operative of the organisation known as Tenet is tasked with preventing World War III” – a mission which involves some kind of time travel, if the trailer is anything to go by. When star John David Washington was asked recently if it’s actually a secret sequel to Inception, Nolan’s super-trippy 2010 sci-fi movie, he replied carefully: “I’d say [Tenet] is an in-law to Inception.”
Washington, who plays a character who’s only ever referred to as the “Protagonist”, wasn’t bluffing. Tenet isn’t a sequel, but this complicated jigsaw puzzle of a blockbuster does see Nolan return to Inception levels of headfuckery after 2017’s relatively straightforward Dunkirk. Where Inception follows a professional thief who jumps into the subconscious of his targets, setting up a heady story which takes place in competing dream worlds, Tenet centres on what one character calls a “temporal Cold War”. People from the future appear to be gearing up to attack the present, helped by a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh, rocking a proper Bond baddie Russian accent) who possesses the technology to jump back and forth in time.
After a frantic and ambiguous opening sequence which takes place during some kind of siege at a concert hall, we see Washington’s Protagonist being tortured by a Russian heavy. He takes what he thinks is a CIA-made suicide bill, but when he wakes up on a converted oil rig somewhere in the Baltic, he’s told by a senior agent (Martin Donovan) that the pill merely put him in a medically-induced coma. But because he chose to take his own life instead of divulging CIA secrets, he’s now been assigned a new and highly classified mission. When he says the word tenet or makes a gesture locking all his fingers together, the Protagonist will open “some of the right doors, and some of the wrong ones”.
Back on dry land in Estonia, the Protagonist opens his first door and gets a very freaky science lesson. People from the future are sending weapons back in time to the present, but the objects’ entropy has been “inverted”, meaning everything happens backwards. When the Protagonist pulls the trigger on an inverted gun, the bullet hurtles back from its target into the barrel: he’s caught the bullet, not shot it. “Don’t try to understand it,” says a cool-headed scientist played by Clémence Poésy – advice which might also be directed at the audience.
Though inverted by the future, the bullets were made in the present, so the Protagonist traces them to reclusive Indian arms dealer Sanjay Singh (Denzil Smith). In Mumbai, he’s joined by his new right-hand man Neil (Robert Pattinson), a floppy-haired Brit with a posh accent and a rock-solid gasp of physics – handy when you’re talking about entropies being inverted. Neil tells the Protagonist the only way to meet Singh is to ambush him by bungee-jumping into his penthouse: these scenes are a lot of fun, but not nearly as novel as the action sequences which come later.
Inside the penthouse, the Protagonist finds that Singh’s wife Priya (Dimple Kapadia) is the real brains of the operation – a nice, quietly feminist touch. In their short meeting, Priya outlines what will become the crux of the Protagonist’s mission: Branagh’s oligarch is acting as some kind of “broker” between the present and the future. If he can get to him, he might be able to find out what’s going on.
We’re now treated to a brief but typically dignified cameo from Nolan regular Michael Caine. He plays Sir Michael Crosby, a British intelligence veteran who informs the Protagonist that the forward is through his upper-crust British wife Lady Catherine Barton (Elizabeth Debicki). He also warns him that his cheap Brooks Brothers suit won’t cut it in these circles. When the Protagonist counters that “you British don’t have a monopoly on snobbery”, Caine delivers the film’s wittiest line: “Well, not a monopoly, more of a controlling interest.”
It would be a shame to say much more, but what follows is in an incredibly intricate game of one-upmanship which involves travelling back and forward in time – sometimes by minutes, sometimes by weeks. Tenet is definitely a film that rewards repeat viewings, which Warner Bros. is presumably counting on given that it’s opening during a pandemic and reportedly needs to make $800m to break even. It’s not so much the concept of “inverted” objects that’s confounding, more that several dazzling action sequences where events happen in reverse are tricky to follow. A time-travelling soldier called Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) describes Tenet’s climactic battle as a “temporal pincer movement”, which gives some idea as to its complexity.
Though it’s sometimes hamstrung by clumsy dialogue – a necessary evil, perhaps, given how much Nolan needs to explain – Tenet is rarely less than thrilling to watch. It’s a challenging, ambitious and genuinely original film packed with compelling performances – Washington and Debicki are especially excellent – which confirms Nolan as the master of the cerebral blockbuster. And if you can, you need to see this visually stunning movie on a big screen.
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
- Release date: August 26 (UK cinemas)