Go with it, and Christopher Nolan’s high-concept action romp will leave you ripping off your face mask for air, even as you wonder what it was all about
Who shall save cinema? Not James Bond apparently. There’s been a brand-new Daniel Craig spectacular ready to go since Easter, arguably just the thing to get punters’ actual bums back on actual seats. But Team 007 is wimping out, unwilling to splurge their product irreversibly into some potential new ruinous lockdown – and Disney has suffered a comparable bottle-loss, dumping its live-action version of the Mulan legend on to streaming services.
So it’s up to the mighty Christopher Nolan to take the heroic, morale-boosting gamble and open his big new film in cinemas. Tenet is a gigantically confusing, gigantically entertaining and gigantically gigantic metaphysical action thriller in which a protagonist called The Protagonist battles cosmic incursions from the future while time flows backwards and forwards at the same time. There’s a 747 plane that crashes into a warehouse and then uncrashes back out of it, for reasons that are not immediately obvious.
The palindromic narrative concept is epitomised by that coolly hi-tech, high-concept title (maybe Nolan briefly considered something similarly resonant like Radar or Noon). With its international locations and stunt set pieces along with all the temporal weirdness, it’s actually quite like a Bond film called No Time To Die To Time No.
Of course it’s madly preposterous, and I sympathise with anyone who thinks that abolishing the cause-effect sequence to mess with “time” effectively cancels jeopardy and annuls suspense and moreover runs up against the illogic of what happens when the altered past meets the join of the unaltered present – what this film identifies as the “grandfather paradox”, though without solving the problem. And to some degree, all the film’s explosions (and implosions) are there to divert your attention from this basic insolubility.
But for me, Tenet is preposterous in the tradition of Boorman’s Point Blank, or even Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, a deadpan jeu d’esprit, a cerebral cadenza, a deadpan flourish of crazy implausibility – but supercharged with steroidal energy and imagination. As head-scratchers go, it’s a scalp-shredder, a skull-mangler. But it’s gloriously ambitious and I staggered out of the cinema, plucking off my face mask dizzy with Nolan-vertigo. (People wear face masks in the film also.) It’s also got moments of deadpan wit, surreality and style and Robert Pattinson may have singlehandedly made the double-breasted suit acceptable once more in men’s tailoring.
Pattinson plays Neil, a dapper, and slightly louche British intelligence officer in Mumbai who makes contact with The Protagonist, played by a toughly unemoting John David Washington. The Protag, as no one calls him, is ordered by a shadowy American government agency to tackle a new cold war situation: an attack from the future from forces capable of reversing time. Washington is shown guns that suck bullets from the wall when you pull the trigger, an innovation he greets with a kind of mildly disapproving surprise, as if he is watching a TV news item about driverless Ubers. Who is going to make use of this terrifying technology and how is it to be countered? This leads our unnamed hero into contact with a mega-rich Indian contractor (elegantly played by Dimple Kapadia) and a creepy Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) and his tragically poised and willowy wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).
It is Debicki who has the most recognisable human emotions here, shouting, crying and even smiling in a way that no one else quite does, and her performance is very strong, though my tiny quarrel with Tenet is that it pinches ideas wholesale from the BBC adaptation of The Night Manager, and Debicki herself is called upon to play essentially the same role. As for Washington and Pattinson, they have to tamp down their natural warmth, though there are hints of what might even be called a bromance. But that is not the point: they are not ciphers exactly, but they are agents. The point is the phenomenal, dreamlike display itself, a vision of the end of the world. Maybe Nolan wants to meditate on the great palindrome of mortality: from dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.
Perhaps Tenet is not finally as challenging as his other temporal disruptor, the early masterpiece Memento from 2000, but there are such amazing moments in it – symmetrically recurring fist-fight scenes, revisited from different viewpoints, in which the combatants are apparently governed by different time-flows: one forward, one backward. It shouldn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense. What it makes is amazing cinema. Wow.