“We live in a twilight world.” This phrase is recited often in Tenet, as a passcode that opens doors and gains trust (especially if you get the desired response, “and there are no friends at dusk”). It’s also something of a philosophical mantra for Christopher Nolan’s new movie, which is set in a world of high-level espionage and secrets within secrets, where even warriors of good are shrouded in ambiguity as they try to save a planet that might already be doomed. And the line happens to be a pretty good way to describe the experience of seeing Tenet in a theater in 2020, where a trip to the cinema raises serious concerns about health and public safety.
I drove from Brooklyn to Connecticut to see Tenet at a theater that I rented for myself (a widely available, though not inexpensive, commercial option), and although the experience of returning to a cinema was thrilling, it was equally eerie. Nolan’s film is earning significant grosses around the world in countries that have a better handle on the coronavirus than the U.S. But the question of whether it’s remotely safe to see this movie in an American theater is an open one, and some critics have opted not to review it at all. Nonetheless, for some 75 percent of the country, seeing Tenet will be an option this weekend, and viewers who do will be greeted by a loud, brassy action blockbuster that matches visual spectacle with elliptical plotting that practically demands multiple viewings.
That was a thought that occurred to me early in my viewing, as I sat in a spongy multiplex recliner for the first time in six months: Oh no, I’m going to want to watch this again. In a world where even a trip to the grocery store carries inherent risk, I may have to wait until the film is available to view at home to really untangle every thread of its jumbled plot. But even one viewing leaves plenty to ruminate on. Starting with his breakout film, Memento, whose plot unfolded half chronologically and half in reverse, Nolan has delighted in original scripts that play with time. Inception staged a heist in dreams within dreams that could stretch minutes into hours; Dunkirk ran three narratives in parallel, each lasting an hour, a day, or a week. In all these movies, time was an obstacle, something to be bested or thwarted en route to the ultimate goal.
In Tenet, time is a tool, but one weaponized by supreme villains. The film follows an unnamed CIA operative (played by John David Washington, whose character is referred to as “the protagonist” in the movie) who is recruited into a clandestine organization known as “Tenet.” His task is to investigate, and possibly leverage, tools of war that are “inverted,” or somehow existing backwards in time and powered by unknown technology from a malevolent future. The film feels like a close cousin of Inception, in that it is loaded with never-ending exposition and explanation of the rules to a complicated sci-fi universe. It’s easy enough to dismiss the details and drink in the spectacle, but Nolan aficionados will enjoy his propensity to turn dense instruction manuals into cute ping-pong dialogue between handsome people wearing dapper suits.
When it was released in 2010, Inception had shades of the James Bond movie Nolan has said he always wanted to make, staging elaborate gun battles and car chases in dreamlike hotels and snowy fortresses. But Inception is also a movie about creativity, and a more nakedly emotional work about a man on a mission to reunite with his family. Tenet strips out much of that personality—partly because it’s so busy explaining how everything works with the time-travel concept of “inversion,” but partly to emphasize the “twilight world” that Nolan imagines his characters must live in. The movie portrays levels of secrecy and conspiracy far beyond imagination, staging battles in a closed Soviet atomic city and an extralegal international free port filled with the art and antiquities of billionaires.
The film’s villain is the Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, giving a performance that saws off whole hocks of ham), a billionaire wrapped up in “inverted” arms deals. But the true enemies are the unseen titans of tomorrow, who are meddling with the past to try to prevent an apocalyptic reality from ever happening. The big battle at the heart of Tenet is theoretical: The protagonist and his charming pal Neil (a delightfully breezy Robert Pattinson) are fighting to protect their present, believing that they can heal the world without succumbing to future meddling.
The movie’s narrative structure, which moves both forward and backwards, is a puzzle box that hard-core Nolan fans will probably enjoy taking apart and putting back together, but it may be excessively inscrutable for a lot of viewers. Many of the director’s biggest storytelling flaws are glaring: Nolan hands a fairly underwritten role to Elizabeth Debicki, who plays Sator’s tortured wife, Kat, mostly putting her in the middle of a cat-and-mouse game orchestrated by powerful men. And while Washington is a commanding screen presence, the protagonist is so obliquely written that the character doesn’t have much of an emotional throughline; the audience is given little to root for beyond wanting him to stop the end of the world.
Still, the same could be said of James Bond—a blunt instrument of the state who always wins the audience’s affection despite never forming attachments or settling down. Tenet plunges its heroes into a universe defined by giant opposing forces who are literally waging a war with entropy. Nolan has finally zoomed out so far with a story that fundamentals of physics have themselves become character motivations. It’s breathtaking to watch the director work on such a grand scale, but the humans within his film do sometimes get lost. For all of Nolan’s metaphysical mastery, there’s an undeniable coldness to his twilight world.