When I was young, if someone exhibited a peculiar phobia or obsession, people used to say his mother must have been frightened by something associated with that obsession during pregnancy.
I can only conclude that Christopher Nolan’s mum was frightened by the works of J.B. Priestley, such is his fascination with the paradoxes and peculiarities of the passage of time.
Tenet, a movie that single-handedly attempts to compensate for 2020’s loss of summer blockbusters, is premised on unscrupulous people from the future, seeking to steal energy from the past (and thereby putting at risk the whole of humankind).
Don’t hold me to that. After all, if I tried to tell you that the plot of a Nolan film was fairly straightforward, you’d know I’d defected to the enemy (whoever they might be).
John David Washington plays a special agent (identified only as “The Protagonist”), who has to pass a test before being sent on a mission. Given that the test begins with a terrorist hostage situation, involving the entire audience of a Ukraine opera house, and ends with some nasty interrogation (pliers and all) from the bad guys, you can guess this mission must be pretty important.
“Your duty transcends the national interest,” he’s told. He gets a password, ‘Tenet,’ which he’s told will, “open the right doors, but some of the wrong ones, too.”
Armed only with guns, knives, immense martial skills and sharp wits, the Protagonist sets off to overcome the antagonist (not so named) – Kenneth Branagh (giving a different accent and wicked twist to Wallender) as the psychopathic Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator.
Along the way, in the manner of all good quest tales, our hero gathers knowledge, tools and allies (at least, he hopes they’re allies). Principal among these is Robert Pattinson’s Neil (clearly too good-looking not to be on the side of the angels…or is he?)
Since we’re combining heist movie with spy action thriller (not forgetting the SciFi conundrum), there has to be a damsel in distress. Elizabeth Debicki as Kat effectively reprises her role from The Night Manager as the cool, beautiful, vulnerable but resilient moll of a ruthless killer. She’s very good at this but has more to offer. She will undoubtedly become a major international star once the world sees her as Princess Diana in The Crown.
Once people and materials start travelling through time (backwards) it won’t surprise you to learn that strange things happen. Some of these are fairly easy to grasp – materials become “inverted,” so that firing a gun causes bullets to jump out of walls, instantly repairing the holes they made. Wounds can also heal, but this is less straightforward and assured (don’t ask me why).
Nolan’s script makes several attempts to explain the enigmas of time travel. The ‘Grandfather Paradox’ for example, is the thought experiment in which someone travels back through time and (accidentally or intentionally) kills their own grandfather (before he has had chance to sire their mother or father). If however, someone did this then they would never have been born and so couldn’t do it – if you see what I mean.
Protagonist: “What happens if someone does that?”
Neil: “No one knows. It’s a paradox”.
Clémence Poésy’s scientist looks just as puzzled as the rest of us. When the exasperated Protagonist sighed, “At this point, nothing surprises me,” I half expected a chorus of ‘me neither’ from our small gaggle of reviewers.
But let’s be honest. Besides the unfathomable conundrums, what you pay for when you buy a ticket to see a Christopher Nolan film is mind-bending use of cinematic effects and some breathtaking set pieces. Rest easy – Tenet has these by the sackful.
It’s impossible not to be hooked by the hell-for-leather pace of the opening hostage scene. Exotic locations and startling effects are liberally seeded throughout.
There’s a spectacular heist followed by an even more spectacular car chase (featuring “normal” and “inverted’ vehicles, some speeding forwards, others backwards – great fun). And if a scene in which an airliner is deliberately taxied into a warehouse while pallets of gold bullion are dumped onto the runway strikes you as OTT, just remember: this “transcends the national interest.”
I don’t think many will say Tenet is a better Nolan film than Inception (hey, for all the excesses, at least the man is economical with his titles). However, I suspect Nolan fans will see this twice, just to get a handle on it, and then once more, hoping to win the arguments over what is actually going on.
The blockbuster is back with a spectacular bang.★ ★ ★ ★