Christopher Nolan is one of those screenwriters critics like to accuse of being too “cerebral”, even “chilly”. Almost all of his films are puzzle boxes that play with time, space and memory, and these commentators argue that a great deal of human warmth is lost in the coolly whirring components of the plot.
This was the critique of his latest film, Tenet, which proved particularly challenging for audiences – but if you give its complexity a chance (and watch it a second time) you might find it one of his better works.
Tenet has the basis of a world-spanning spy movie, but the relatively standard spy-versus-oligarchs plot is welded to a wealth of scientific concepts: the flow of time and entropy, existential destiny, and even climate change. To that end, the core storyline is relatively simple: while attempting to extract a spy from a terrorist siege of the Kiev Opera House, a CIA agent known only as the protagonist (John David Washington) is nearly hit by a bullet that goes to move seems backwards. Minutes later he is captured and tortured – but commits suicide by pill before collapsing. He then wakes up to discover that the pill was a “test” and that he was recruited by a mysterious organization to find out the source of the bullets hurtling backwards (a concept characters call “inversion”).
The protagonist tracks the bullets to an arms dealer in Mumbai, where he connects with Neil (Robert Pattinson, post-Twilight and pre-Batman), who was sent by the organization to be his handler. They trace the arms dealer’s bullets to a Russian oligarch named Andrei Sator. As the protagonist digs deeper, he discovers that Sator is blackmailing his estranged wife, Kat; He uses this information to infiltrate Sator’s life and criminal works, eventually finding out that the oligarch is communicating with the distant future. And people in the distant future want to do something terrible to the present world.
That’s enough plot spoilers for now; Suffice it to say that spheres aren’t the only objects that flow backwards through time. One of the film’s greatest set pieces is a freeway chase where vehicles collide only to overturn and become whole again. At another point, the protagonist engages in a brawl in the hallway with an “inverted man” who punches backwards, shoots, and even slides across the floor:
Nolan admitted in a pre-release interview that he “wanted to use the audience’s ability to follow convention [the spy movie genre] to push it into interesting and unexpected territory.” Which is a good idea in theory, but even with these familiar conventions, “Tenet” is often difficult to watch the first time, and demands the audience’s concentration to figure out what’s going on – in addition to the time-related things, the espionage elements of the plot have their own levels and nuances.
Most of the film’s key information is conveyed in lengthy speeches, but even these massive exhibits don’t deliver everything the audience needs. Like many films that attempt to grapple with the plastic nature of time, many of their conceits threaten to fall apart if you think about them too much; Neil and the protagonist sometimes fall silent and shrug in frustration, as unaware as the audience of the implications of communicating with the distant future or traveling back in time.
It’s a testament to Christopher Nolan’s clout that Warner Bros. matched the $200 million budget for a film that’s delightfully shot and pyrotechnic at moments, but also requires audiences to fulfill it on their own terms. Nolan also urged his studio to release the film theatrically in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic and calculated the film’s earnings would give theaters a much-needed boost (It ended up grossing just over $350 million, which is probably a lot less than it would have made in a non-pandemic summer). But often it feels like his least talked about film, the one that either no one has seen or didn’t really enjoy.
And that’s a shame, because despite its intricate plot and dense theories, “Tenet” has a real heart that’s easy to miss on first viewing. Towards the end, the true relationship between two characters is finally revealed. It’s a deep and emotional moment, one that completely reframes everything you’ve just seen; but in the penultimate scene, it also quivers on the edge of feeling like a throwaway, one final “Gotcha!” switch from director to audience.
Thanks to this scene, “Tenet” becomes a completely different film on second viewing once you realize the intensity of the connection between the characters. Every conversation and exchange of glances between the two carries a new story; It’s no longer just a story about time-manipulating spies, a chilling mix of Ian Fleming and Richard Feynman – it’s also about a love that stands the test of time. You realize that Nolan is trying to break away from the weary dead-wife/girlfriend/parent trope that fuels the emotional engine of so many of his other films — and while you could argue that the script’s structure sabotages his efforts, it shows also that he’s still growing as a creator despite all the blockbuster successes.
It’s also somehow fitting that a film about going back and forth in time needs to be watched at least twice for maximum emotional impact. If you’ve seen “Tenet” once and didn’t particularly like it or didn’t understand what’s going on, give it another chance; On second viewing, it transforms into something new and touching—even warm.