Movies

Tenet Is Spectacular and Unintelligible

The writer-director’s latest is an elaborate clockwork, but it lacks what makes his best movies tick.

The actor side-eyes a bullet hole in a pane of glass
John David Washington in Tenet. Warner Bros.

Though it may seem hard to believe after its release was scheduled, rescheduled, and re-rescheduled, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is now playing in theaters all over the world. At the moment, it’s mostly playing in countries where the coronavirus’ spread has been checked, but on Sept. 4, it will open in some parts of the United States, where it decidedly has not. This presents cinemagoers with an unprecedented question: Is this a movie worth risking your life for?

The answer, to relieve you of any suspense, is no, as it would be for any theatrical experience short of a one-night-only stand by the risen Christ. A globe-hopping adventure shot in Nolan’s favored IMAX and 65mm formats, Tenet has plenty of big-screen spectacle, but unlike Interstellar and Dunkirk, it doesn’t feel like a movie that will be made or broken by its visual presentation—and in any case, the bar for “must-see” is exponentially higher now than it was the last time one of his movies made it into theaters, when the only person breathing through a mask was Tom Hardy. It’s an impossible standard to meet, and a decision it would be presumptuous to make on another’s behalf. I can relay the circumstances in which I was comfortable entering a movie theater for the first time since March—a freshly cleaned theater with just four other people, all wearing masks, at a time of day when the multiplex was otherwise deserted—and that I still had a minor panic attack sitting in the parking lot after the fact. Whether you’re ready to go back to movie theaters isn’t a question I can answer, except to suggest that the potential quality of the movie in question should be far down on your list of concerns.

So anyway! Tenet.

So many of Christopher Nolan’s movies are built around playing with time that making one in which it’s actually the core of the plot feels redundant—or perhaps it’s just the high point of one end of a pendulum’s arc, a pause at the apex before it starts moving in a different direction. As the movie’s unnamed hero—identified in the credits as simply the Protagonist—John David Washington is a CIA operative who’s inaugurated into a “twilight world” where a struggle is playing out for the future of humanity itself. The enemies are unseen and unknown, because they don’t technically exist yet. Somewhere in the future, at a distance of generations and perhaps centuries, someone has figured out how to make both time and entropy run backwards, so that the past becomes the future, and chaos devolves into order. Exploded buildings pull themselves together with a reverse whoosh and smashed cars somersault through the air and land without a scratch. Meanwhile, some ordinary-seeming objects are imbued with what the movie calls “inverse radiation,” and the scientist (Clémence Poésy) who teaches our hero how to spot them uses a loaded handgun to illustrate. If he puts his hand over a bullet lying on a table and forms the intention to drop it, it leaps into his hand instead; when he fires, it flies towards him from the point of impact, and does plenty of damage no matter which way it’s traveling. As she explains, “You’re not shooting the bullet. You’re catching it.”

These are ideas that are difficult to wrap your mind around, and also one that feels like it might not be worth the trouble. Interstellar’s time travel was vetted by physicists, and Inception’s dreams-within-dreams could be de-nested if you took the time, but since Nolan’s brother Jonathan decamped for the puzzle-box universe of Westworld and left Chris to write on his own, his movies feel less like equations and more like hedge mazes, where the impetus is to get lost in them rather than find your way out. That made sense for Dunkirk, whose subject was the subjective experience of battle. But Tenet is a movie with secrets to be unearthed and mysteries to be solved, so its areas of vagueness feel frustrating rather than evocative. It’s a movie that advises its hero “Don’t try to understand it—feel it,” but makes that nameless hero so nondescript that it’s hard to feel anything for him.

Although Washington is told the threat that faces humanity is even worse than nuclear holocaust, the arms race and the race against time are closely interwoven: The most visible villain is a Russian oligarch (a borschty Kenneth Branagh) who got his start retrieving weapons-grade plutonium from a damaged warhead, and the climax transpires around a former nuclear site. The movie’s palindromic title suggests temporal recurrence, that whether moving forwards or backwards in time, we will always end up at the same place. But like most palindromes, Tenet prizes reversibility over intelligibility: The point of “Able was I ere I saw Elba” is that it reads the same both ways, not that it teaches you anything. The scenes we see play twice through, each from the perspective of a character traveling in a different direction through time (one, of course, placed right at the movie’s midpoint) are nifty parlor tricks, although the backwards-forwards fistfight lacks the dancer’s grace of Inception’s reality-bending hallway brawl. But once you’ve watched them both ways, there’s nothing left to see. Washington’s character is cautioned that he needs to “stop thinking in linear terms.” Nolan, ever the rationalist, can’t abandon linearity. He just gives us two lines instead of one.

Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that some of Tenet’s best moments are its most straightforward. There’s a scene where Washington punches his way through a thicket of Branagh’s goons—including a novel use of a cheese grater borrowed from a restaurant kitchen—that’s delightful in its swift elegance. And while Washington is fixed on stoic determination, Robert Pattinson, as an ally with a mysterious past and/or future, invests his performance with a movie-star wink that suggests saving the world might actually be a bit of fun. (As Branagh’s estranged wife, Elizabeth Debicki unfortunately has little chance to suggest the same.) There are car chases and gun battles and helicopter shots of cargo ships cutting through deep-blue oceans—and how I have missed them all.

The mantra of Pattinson’s character is “What’s happened happened,” a bit of time-paradox hand-waving that also serves, as he puts it, as “an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world.” It’s so telling of Nolan’s worldview that in a movie titled for an article of faith, the ultimate proof is that the universe just works. He’s always been a gearhead, devoted to celluloid and sprocket holes, but his best movies are also sentimental as hell—big, sloppy tearjerkers wrapped inside clockwork thrillers. Tenet’s gears turn smoothly, but it’s like a factory with no raw material to process. Movies have the power to transport us, to transform us, to take us somewhere we never could have gone. A palindrome just leaves you back where you started.

For more Slate coverage of Tenet, listen to a spoiler-filled conversation about the movie between Slate’s Sam Adams and Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson.