'Tenet' Is Pretentious Mumbo-Jumbo for Stoned Teens

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh

BY Alex HudsonPublished Aug 26, 2020

"Don't try to understand it."

This genuinely helpful advice is given by a researcher to John David Washington's unnamed Protagonist character, who is attempting to wrap his head around Tenet's concept of "time inversion." It's as if Christopher Nolan is momentarily speaking directly to the audience: none of this shit makes much sense, so don't even bother.

Nolan's latest contribution to the canon of first-year dorm posters was made for stoned teens who want to get their mind blown by trippy fight sequences and unsolvable paradoxes about time travel. Characters constantly do things without any clear motivation, simply because their future selves have already done it. Wait a second, why exactly is this character fighting with a past version of themselves? Because it's already happened, that's why. The word "tenet" is a palindrome, meaning that you can read it either forwards or backwards — a bit like time itself. If that kind of shit blows your mind, then brace yourself for the best movie ever, because this is Donnie Darko with quite literally 50 times the budget.

Tenet, superficially at least, has a neat plot. The Protagonist takes part in a CIA operation to stop a violent siege and, after proving his loyalty by biting into a suicide pill, is recruited into a secret operation to stop of a future world war. The word "tenet," along with an accompanying Wakanda-style hand gesture, is given to him as some sort of a mysterious code (but don't worry about what it means, because the codeword is abandoned completely after the first 20 minutes).

The Protagonist learns that objects and people can be inverted in time, and that humanity is beginning to witness the detritus of a future war. It then becomes his mission to defend humanity against a cross-generational threat that, chronologically speaking, hasn't actually happened yet. Pretty cool!

It's a relatively basic premise about the non-linear nature of time that gets a whole lot knottier with the inclusion of an dashing sidekick named Neil (Robert Pattinson, whose presence is never sufficiently explained), the Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and Andrei's abused wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). There's a whole business about a forged painting, way too much fuss about tax havens, and an Indian billionaire couple (Dimple Kapadia and Denzil Smith) who serve little purpose other than to give the Protagonist an excuse to bungee jump off their apartment building. Arrival dealt with similar time-bending themes a lot more coherently, but also with a lot less cool-looking action sequences in which people try to punch bad guys who are going backwards in time.

Because really, that's all Tenet is: a chance for Nolan to give the audience some beautifully shot, reality-warping fight scenes, similar to all that upside-down-slo-mo stuff he did in Inception. It's as if he came up with the concept for the action sequences and retrofitted the rest of the plot to make them possible. Adding to the Inception vibes, composer Ludwig Göransson brings an impossibly maximalist scores with enough brassy BWAHHHs to make Hans Zimmer proud. The locations are stunning, and Hoyte van Hoytema's dazzling cinematography makes a clear case for why Warner Bros. insisted on releasing this in theatres, rather than taking the safe route with a home release.

Nolan had apparently been working on the concept for Tenet for more than a decade, and maybe that's the real problem here. It overcomplicates its nifty premise with a convoluted plot, unclear motivations, and a self-serious tone that doesn't acknowledge the silliness of all this bong-ripping mind-fuckery. Tenet is the larger-than-life blockbuster that's supposed to represent a return to cinemas after months of coronavirus-related closures, but this isn't quite fun enough to risk your life for.
(Warner Bros.)

Latest Coverage