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It’s a bit odd attempting to write a spoiler-free review of Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s excellent new sci-fi spy spectacle/mindfuck, because I genuinely don’t know how I could spoil it for you. Sure, I could discuss some plot elements or the mechanics of how the film’s version of time-manipulation works, but they wouldn’t do you much good: There isn’t a pithy “Snape Kills Dumbledore” that you can yell while driving by at crowds in front of theaters nationwide. At best, you could maybe drive a single mile-an-hour while you yell out a complex web of exposition-heavy plotting and specious fan theories like you’re Alex Jones in Waking Life, but you’d probably get a ticket and/or crash your car while trying to look at the synopsis on Wikipedia. But it’s the experience of watching Tenet unspool the first time around that is responsible for all of its enthrallment because even if you think you know what this is going to be like, you don’t.
Here comes the vaguest possible synopsis I can muster: The Protagonist (John David Washington), a super-spy, is recruited into a transnational organization that is engaged in a Cold War with an unknowable enemy. He’s tasked with getting close to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, in a legitimately terrifying performance as the heavy), a Russian arms dealer, through his estranged wife, Katharine (Elizabeth Debicki). Along the way, he’s assisted by the mysterious Neil (Robert Pattinson), and The Protagonist will ultimately have to save the world itself. That’s it. That’s all you’re going to get, but I also think it’s all Nolan really wants you to get in the first place. You can watch the film and follow the plot at its most essential and basic form, but there’s a significantly richer layer of complexity beneath the surface for those who are willing to go down that path.
For better or worse, Nolan has finally made the movie that legions of critics, commentators, and casual fans have always demanded that he make — that is, a pure Bond film, though this complaint only seems to apply to his superhero films more so than his other passion projects like The Prestige or Interstellar*. Some viewers are going to walk into this expecting, say, No Time to Die (a point of comparison that I wish in some other universe we had access to prior to entering theaters for Tenet), and walk out with the painful realization that everything they hated about previous Nolan films — incomprehensible technobabble, vague and seemingly-absent characters, and lengthy exposition — are just sort of endemic to the spy genre as a whole, absent the campy creature comforts of your average Bond film. Many of these criticisms will come from people who just genuinely do not like the filmmaker’s Pet Sounds: had Nolan debuted with, say, Batman Begins, and Memento had come out instead of Tenet right now, you would find many of the same irascible voices complaining about that film’s inscrutable construction, even though a legion of nerds would still be deciphering it as if they were a set of Golden Plates they’d found buried somewhere in Western New York.
Others, much like myself, will walk out fully enthralled by the director’s newfound skills as a filmmaker post-Dunkirk, not minding the herky-jerky twist and turns of the plot, and even outright accepting them as bumps on an incredibly windy roller-coaster. The central tenet of the big-budget spy movie, at least in my estimation, is that realism, plot mechanics, and general logic are all subservient to a single guiding principle: it must be cool. Cool can come in a lot of different forms — it can be the brash swagger of the Connery Bond, or the mod cockney-hipness of Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, the camp sex appeal of James Coburn’s Derek Flint, the cold calculation of Gary Oldman’s George Smiley or the seeming omnipotence of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne — and Nolan is operating with that ethos as his primary motivator. His characters ooze it, dressed to the nines in classy fashion, occupying scenic vistas like they’re Roger Moore. Washington is at turns passionate, flippant, and brutal; Pattinson’s semi-sweaty charm radiates off the screen; and Debicki is astonishingly photographed (though, despite her being a “Bond” girl, she defies the trope), towering over her male co-stars as an imposing on-screen force.
You will see truly incredible shit in this film. The effects work seems subtle at first, but by the time the film’s second hour rolls around, it will become very, very clear to you why this movie cost so much money, and it looks incredible — Nolan’s plain settings often conceal how deep and interesting the work that’s happening behind the scenes really is. Much has been made with Nolan’s obsession with time and editing, but Tenet spotlights his deep understanding of on-screen geography, a talent that’s often left to the margins but is fully on display here. The fight choreography is something that a filmmaker like Michel Gondry goes to sleep dreaming about each night, and the practical effects — one big one in particular — are as thrilling as you’d hope for in a film like this. It’s captured handsomely by Hoyte van Hoytema, who brings a level of Tinker Tailor-like detachment to the proceedings on screen. Ludwig Goransson’s score might be the best Nolan’s ever had in one of his films; its cyberpunky mixtures of complicated ambient synths and heavy orchestrations are intense and often overwhelming, and if you see it in an IMAX theater, you will probably spend the majority of the film shaking from just how fucking loud it is (also, the fact that this mind-numbingly ridiculous blockbuster has an original song by Travis Scott tied-in rolling over its credits reminds one of better days in the ’90s).
There’s plenty to chew on in the narrative itself, though I’m going to hold off on discussing my personal analysis on one aspect of the film’s themes until more people have seen it. But Tenet is the kind of thrilling blockbuster that we so desperately need in any summer, a brainy, brawny, and frankly astonishing work of populist cinema that doesn’t patronize its audience and actively encourages them to make connections for themselves. And, surprisingly, Nolan’s having a blast telling the story as well, perhaps for the first time since The Dark Knight. This isn’t like solving a puzzle box — it’s like watching the movements of a Phillipe Patek, observing how the gears shift, and understanding both the simplicity and complexity of its construction.
*Mark my words: like most Nolan pet projects, this movie will be widely accepted by film circles as an under-heralded masterpiece in three or four years’ time. It happened with The Prestige, it happened with Interstellar, it will happen with Tenet.