Tenet Review: Christopher Nolan Makes a Bracing Time Travel Mess

Had this movie arrived in a different timeline—one in which COVID never happened—Tenet’s many flaws…

Had this movie arrived in a different timeline—one in which COVID never happened—Tenet’s many flaws would likely be more glaring. The script, for one, is a mess. Not because it’s hard to follow, or because Nolan knows what he means but fails to properly explain it to us; I don’t really mind those things, though they do start to get aggravating around the two-hour mark. The real problem with the writing is more basic: it’s awfully trite, a lot of boilerplate action-thriller dialogue that clangs leadenly against Nolan’s sleek aesthetic. The luxe cool of the movie is frequently undermined by dumb lines spoken with strained gravitas.

John David Washington is the lead, playing a character called the Protagonist, who is some sort of special ops somebody. Washington is a fine actor, open and alert and graced with a natural movie-star appeal. But like several of the suits he wears in the film, Tenet is a bad fit. He can’t quite get Nolan’s clunkers out with the cocksure suavity they require. Could anyone? I don’t know. Maybe not. But Washington’s particular energy—the warmth and un-cloying sweetness that make him so engaging in other roles—doesn’t sync with this movie.

The antagonist of the film, a Blofeld-esque Russian baddie with world-ending ambitions, is played by Kenneth Branagh, who recycles the Slavic hamminess of his Jack Ryan villain to disastrous effect. Washington simply doesn’t click with Tenet, but Branagh is downright bad in it. The dialogue he’s been given certainly don’t help, but I suspect even a more elegant script would have been chewed up by all of his mugging.

Robert Pattinson glides more easily through the film, mostly because he gets to play the fun guy—the Tom Hardy in Inception to Washington’s Leonardo DiCaprio. In loose linen suits and a Nolan-ish mop of hair, Pattinson lends the film a needed air of languid nonchalance. He’s having a good time, because he’s been allowed to. Elizabeth Debicki, playing the high-class moll to Branagh’s arms dealer, mostly just re-performs her role in The Night Manager. She’s good at that part, but I wish she had something new to do.

By the end of Tenet, even Nolan’s keen facility for spectacle has begun to fail him. The final set piece is a bracing siege on some kind of military base, a cacophony of gunfire and explosions that renders the core time-travel concept of Tenet more compellingly and convincingly than it has been elsewhere in the film. But that’s not saying much. It’s still really hard to understand what the hell is going on, and all the head-scratching starts to hurt pretty quickly. Nolan’s decision to stage this already confusing melee with all of his actors in obfuscating visored helmets was, perhaps, a poor one.

Picking apart what exactly is confusing about Tenet’s plot would take me too far into spoiler territory. But in a general sense, the film’s tangle of paradoxes is dense and opaque enough to become uninviting. By the end of the film, which teases lightly at a potential franchise that I don’t think will ever happen, I didn’t want to dive further into Tenet’s logical knot—I wanted to swat it away. Maybe a second or third viewing of the film will crack it open for me. But those revisits will have to wait while our world struggles to rescue its own future.

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