Disclaimer: Our writer saw Tenet at a small press screening in the UK, where they were comfortable that COVID-19 safety precautions were met for all staff and attendees. We urge audiences to consider the safety of themselves and of cinema staff when making the decision to see this film in cinemas.
A concert hall fills with people. An orchestra gets in tune. The audience waits for the discordant sound to resolve itself into harmonies, melodies and familiar sounds. But, announces The Protagonist (John David Washington) on his mysterious mission to extract a target from the scene, “We live in a twilight world.” Things are about to get darker, weirder and violent as Tenet plunges us into the dissonant chaos of international espionage. For these are the dying hours of a planet under threat from an environmental and temporal war waged between generations in the future and the past, and The Protagonist must race between and against time to end it – before it ends the world.
Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited Tenet is a mixed film full of vertiginous highs and despairing lows that are sensorially overwhelming. Things get blown up, crashed into, and crushed; people are obliterated, slammed, and exploded. Masks and breathing apparatus abound (fittingly in the Coronavirus era, some characters cannot breathe the dangerous air), and in typical Nolan-style (think Bane in The Dark Knight Rises), speech is muffled and barely audible when mediated through machines. Throughout it all, The Protagonist must fight misinformation as much as enemy agents and uncanny figures that seem to know his next move before he does. And in all its unravelling and chaotic glory, Tenet is as nihilistic as the deranged antagonist Andrei Saytor (Kenneth Branagh, in blistering form), the Russian arms dealer that The Protagonist is trying to track down. Everything in his path is a MacGuffin, a ruse or distraction that obscures the plot of a palindromic film in which, ultimately, nothing matters.
Given the originality of its narrative structure, then, it’s a shame that Tenet relies on so many tired tropes. As we dash from opera houses in Ukraine to luxury apartments in Mumbai, the people we meet along the way are caricatures. Robert Pattinson is a dashing, somewhat worn-around-the-edges British agent, Neil; Dimple Kapadia is a no-nonsense Indian matriarch Priya; and Saytor is an almost yawn-inducing Russian stereotype. And then there is Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, Saytor’s estranged wife: here, Nolan is worthy of special criticism. While she has interior strength of character (to a point), it’s disappointing that yet again the female protagonist in an action movie is understood only as a wife and a mother. Her body is violated. She cannot control her emotions. She must be rescued. It’s a tale as old as the moving image, and one that is tiresome in the extreme.
It’s particularly frustrating because Tenet is otherwise so aware of its place in cinema history. Indeed, as a story about our ability to travel backwards and forwards through time, it’s a self-reflexive meditation on the power of the filmic medium. As Priya tells The Protagonist, everything that we record is a communication with the future – all that we’ve been lacking is a means of speaking back to the past. In Tenet, however, Nolan does talk back to those that have come before. Recalling Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds, his script references a well-known conversation between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, in which the pair discussed the relative merits of bombs that both do — and don’t — go off onscreen. The reference in Tenet rewinds us back to a point in the cinema’s past that invariably ricochets back into the future, and depending on your point of view, it’s either very clever — or a little passé. When an in-joke spoken into existence by Hitchcock bounces back and forth between white, male, self-styled auteurs through the ages, it risks excluding others from the conversation.
But Tenet does, nevertheless, depart from the obvious, racial trappings of its typically white hybrid genres (part spy film, part thriller, it’s also a heist movie and a sci-fi film) in that it gives us a Black hero. John David Washington offers a warm, nuanced and watchable performance, and injects humour into the film via his self-aware role as the only Black man in the narrative’s all-white spaces. As he knowingly says to Kat over dinner, “Your husband really doesn’t like the look of me.” It’s telling, too, that he must resist admonishments from white characters demanding that he drink, dress, and talk a certain way: the narrative is as much about his right to call himself The Protagonist as it is a race to save the world. While the film does invoke the stereotype of the ‘good’ Black man whose life is worth more than others because he is willing to die for his country (it’s worth noting the film is absent of Black women), it’s a joy to watch Washington in the role.
And despite its many flaws,Tenet is an enjoyable watch. For just as the film destroys and annihilates, so it also builds and expands. It asks us to see the possibilities of cinema in a new way, and I haven’t been as excited about the technicality of a fight scene since the Wachowski Sisters gave us ‘bullet time’ in The Matrix. Tenet’s reverse-time action sequences and backwards-forwards car chases are thrilling, and the cacophony of explosions and extractions ratchet up and up in a crescendo of hyper-spectacle that assaults the senses. The score, too, has a powerful effect. Scudding, screeching, thudding and anxiety-inducing, its rhythmic repetition makes you feel trapped in moments of suspense, as if the orchestra in the opening scene never stopped disintegrating. It’s clear from the outset that everything has meaning; everything in this film is there for a reason. Beyond the extravagant aesthetics, though, and central to Tenet’s success, are two characters whose belief in free will, compassion, and human feeling give the film its existential core. Washington and Pattinson navigate the absurdity of the ‘science’ underpinning the film and deliver clunky dialogue with enough panache that you can forgive the questionable logic and jump aboard for their wild ride. It’s their likeability and lightness in an otherwise dark and heavy film that elevates it from a one-off watch to a movie with potential for repeat viewings. Thus Tenet is a complex and yet deceptively simple film that has the capacity to leave you loving and loathing it at the same time. As it is so hellbent on telling us: yes, we can have it both ways.
Tenet is out in select territories in cinemas now, the US will start rolling out screenings from September 3rd due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis
by Rebecca Harrison
Rebecca Harrison is a feminist film critic, broadcaster and academic. She contributes to outlets including Sight & Sound, MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, and the BBC. She is currently writing about The Empire Strikes Back for the BFI Film Classics series.