Christopher Nolan’s success is the sort of paradox that would be at the center of a Christopher Nolan movie. His films — often characterized as puzzle boxes — are meticulous works that walk the line between indulgent labyrinths and satisfying spectacle. They’re brainier than any superhero movie would dare to be, but they still find comparable success. This blue chip status has made Nolan the patron saint of guys who say, “I like movies that make you think,” even if said thinking is just a question with an extremely clear answer — like “Was the Joker right?”
Nolan’s films occupy a unique space in pop culture. The director of The Dark Knight is one of the only filmmakers in Hollywood who is able to make an original nonfranchise film and have it be as big as The Dark Knight. This makes it fascinating when a movie like Tenet comes along because Tenet is a complete misfire that underlines how charmed the director’s career has been.
Laid out on paper, though? Tenet sounds awesome. The film follows a man known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), a CIA agent who finds himself on the hunt for an arms dealer with an unusual weapon: bullets that fire backward through time. It’s called “inversion,” and with the right hardware, it can be done to anything, including cars and people.
Inversion is the hinge on which Tenet’s mind-bending twists pivot. Unfortunately, it’s quite poorly explained (“Don’t try to understand it,” one character says, helpfully), and while it leads to some great action — an early fight scene between an “inverted” character and a “normal” one absolutely rules — the obfuscated plot robs the movie’s showstoppers of badly needed momentum. These scenes are few and far between, anchored by characters who are more puzzle pieces than people. There’s very little to hold on to as you hope for something good to pop up in the movie’s 2.5-hour runtime.
Some bright spots: Robert Pattinson, who plays the Protagonist’s handler, Neil, is tremendously fun to watch, even if he’s not in the film much. (He’ll make a great Batman.) Likewise, Elizabeth Debicki is terrific as a player in the movie’s espionage plot, but she’s mostly reduced to a damsel in distress. And the whole thing is set in remarkably drab locales; the film goes so many places but loves none of them.
That’s perhaps the biggest disappointment of Tenet: it wants to be an unusually clever spy film, but Nolan isn’t terribly invested in the fun of spy movies. You know: cool outfits, flashy gear, people pushed to their absolute limit and managing to wear it incredibly well. And because the mechanics of the film’s plot require a lot of explanation just to follow what people are doing in a scene, it’s very easy to miss why they’re doing it. This is a shame because the reason for all this time-warping and subterfuge is actually compelling as hell!
Just so we’re clear: I am pretty good at watching movies. I’ve put in my 10,000 hours, per Malcolm Gladwell’s absolutely airtight metrics, and that makes me an expert. Yet, I was still confused by the time the credits rolled. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the beautiful things about movies is how they can immerse us in stories that are bigger than us that defy easy comprehension. What unmoors me is the nature of my confusion.
Tenet is a film that explicitly encourages you to feel a thing and not think about it, but it doesn’t offer any emotional anchors. It’s a disorientation that comes when you don’t feel you’re in the hands of someone with complete control over the narrative. You might be able to call some twists before they happen, but even if you do, it’s no more satisfying than a coin toss. Sure, you may have been right. But unless you had money on it, does it matter?
Tenet is an absolute mess of a movie that stumbles doing all of the things I like about Christopher Nolan films. Directors are allowed missteps, obviously — this one is even pretty humanizing — but the whole situation is complicated by the circumstances surrounding the film’s release.
For months, Tenet was Hollywood’s last holdout, delayed three times in the hopes that it might somehow have a blockbuster release even as the COVID-19 pandemic showed absolutely no signs of abating and other studios pushed their releases into 2021. That means, in some ways, Tenet was seen as a foregone conclusion. It was an ambitious film from Christopher Nolan, the guy who turned a cerebral romp like Inception into legitimately popular culture; Tenet would offer the pleasures and profits his filmography is known for, with a fiercely loyal following buoying ticket sales even amid a pandemic.
But now we know how the story ends. Tenet is now available to buy on-demand, and it earned very little at the box office when it was released over Labor Day weekend — even as it kept movie theaters open and hemorrhaging money. The movie business leveraged all of its goodwill and hype in the service of Keeping Movies Alive by worsening a public health emergency.
The quality of the movie does not change the immoral nature of a release strategy like this, but knowing Hollywood wanted me to risk getting terribly sick to see this goddamn mess? It’s insulting.