“We’re living in a twilight world.” That’s the password The Protagonist (John David Washington) and Company use in “Tenet,” the new Christopher Nolan mind-bender, now playing only in theatres, but the movie’s premise is more “Twilight Zone” than twilight world.
The movie opens with a breathless and loud rescue sequence in an opera house in Ukraine, the first of the movie’s several eye-and-ear-popping action sequences. At stake is a mysterious component, part of a much larger device, with the power to end the world. A nuclear holocaust? “No, something worse.”
The Protagonist is tasked with piecing together the potentially world ending puzzle. “Your duty transcends national interest,” says his handler Victor (Martin Donovan). All he has to go on is a gesture and a code word, Tenet. “It will open some of the right doors,” Victor says, “but some of the wrong ones too.”
So far, “Tenet” feels like an elaborate James Bond style story, complete with exotic locations, enigmatic characters and a world that needs saving.
Then things get complicated.
The Protagonist isn’t simply dealing with the usual spy stuff, like international intrigue, a Russian oligarch or femme fatales. He’s fighting against “inversion,” a disturbance in the very fabric of time, that sees material running backwards through time, while the rest of the world moves forward. So, in the upside-down story of “Tenet,” an “inverted” weapon could affect the past as well as the present.
It’s a reversal of the way we think of linear time. It’s not time travel. The Protagonist doesn’t jump back to ancient Egypt for a quick chat with Cleopatra or zip forward to talk to his 100-year-old self. When he inverts, he is in the moment, but running counter to everyone else. “You’re not shooting the bullet,” he’s told by a researcher (Clémence Poésy). “You’re catching it.” Then, by way of clarity, she adds, “don’t try and understand it,” which may be the best advice The Protagonist has received to this point.
Teamed with shadowy operative Neil (Robert Pattinson), The Protagonist enters a topsy-turvy world of high-end art, down-and-dirty dealings with strongman Andrei Stor (Kenneth Branagh) and a clock that is moving backwards and forwards simultaneously. “You have a future in the past,” Neil says to The Protagonist.
At the centre of the action is John David Washington, hot off his Golden Globe Best Actor nomination for “BlacKkKlansman.” He’s in every scene, and whether wearing a Brooks Brother suit (in one of the film’s funniest exchanges) or hanging off the side of a building, he’s a convincing action hero with acting chops. It’s a demanding role and he pulls it off with equal parts bravado and restraint. It takes swagger to anchor a movie like this but in his relationship with Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) he reveals a flirtier, more tender side. The protagonist is a well-rounded character and, if they don’t do a “Tenet 2: Time Gone Wild” perhaps his name could be added to the list of 007 candidates.
The supporting cast, Branagh as the “all our lives in his hands” villain and Debicki as his beleaguered wife and Pattinson as the calm, cool and collected mercenary, all acquit themselves well but “Tenet’s” real star, however, is Christopher Nolan.
For blockbuster starved audiences Nolan delivers the kind of spectacle we’re used to seeing in the summer months. As per usual, he avoids CGI wherever possible in favor of practical effects. The results are eye-popping. The big set pieces—like an airplane driving through a building—don’t have the kind of digital disconnect that often comes with computer generated action. The show-stopping sequences are busy, exciting but most of all, organic, and the sense of peril (and pageantry) that comes with that is undeniable. Add to that Nolan’s use of IMAX cameras and you have wild action that fills the big screen in every way.
With a complicated story comes drawbacks. In the first hour there is a lot of exposition. People ask questions—Do you know what a free port is? How does inversion work?—while others take the time to answer them all in an effort to keep the audience in the loop. There’s a lot of talk about theories and plans but Nolan keeps things lively with lightning fast—with a capital “F”— pacing.
Will you understand the puzzles of “Tenet’s” time manipulation story? Maybe, maybe not. It’s definitely a movie that will hold up to multiple viewings, revealing new info and fostering more understanding of the plot each time. The trippy last hour is jam packed with artfully arranged action scenes that manipulate time in increasingly psychedelic ways. While you may feel lost in time as the movie careens toward the end of its 150-minute running time with an involved and inversive climax that weaves the past into the fabric of The Protagonist’s mission, you may wish you could invert time and relive the story again. And you can, for the price of a ticket.
“Tenet” opens in over 70 countries worldwide, including Europe and Canada, starting on Wednesday, August 26.