Is Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Worth Renting on VOD?
The controversial blockbuster—that opened in a number of theaters during the pandemic—is out on VOD this week. And it’s one glorious, convoluted, action-packed mess.
“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” says weapons expert Barbara (Clémence Poésy) early on in Tenet—arguably the best advice a movie has ever given its viewers. Christopher Nolan’s thriller is a time-traveling puzzle box that’s so convoluted, confusing, and straight-up difficult to understand—literally, the dialogue is often unintelligibly garbled—that at a certain point, one must set aside any efforts to lucidly comprehend its serpentine plot and simply go with the flow. That turning point, it must be said, comes very early on in this 2.5-hour epic. Yet those willing to coast along on its wonky wavelength may find that the Dunkirk and The Dark Knight director's latest is something like the epitome of his temporally twisty canon, distilling his many cinematic signatures and preoccupations down to their entrancing abstract essence.
Finally premiering on VOD on Dec 15 after its much-delayed (and debated) September bow in theaters—the ideal venue for its massively scaled action, where it netted a $350 million-plus box office—Tenet is a film self-consciously comprised of elemental Nolan building blocks. Its hero is a CIA agent named (and even referred to as) The Protagonist (John David Washington), and his saga involves wearing dapper suits and/or tactical military outfits, jet-setting around global hotspots, interacting with shady arms dealers and mercenaries, driving speedboats and flying in giant cargo jets, fighting henchmen in hand-to-hand combat and leaping and racing around twinkling nighttime cities, engaging in shootouts and car chases, and having long-winded conversations about the rules governing extraordinary systems and circumstances with other fellow professionals. Courtesy of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, everything looks sleek, sinister and gargantuan, and Ludwig Göransson’s equally colossal score is awash in deafening, sexy electronica blasts. Virtually all the ingredients of Nolan’s prior work are present here, albeit this time reduced to their primary theoretical form.
That also includes the manipulation of time, which from Memento to Inception to Dunkirk has been a central Nolan fixation. After swallowing what he believes to be a cyanide pill following a Kiev opera house assault, the Protagonist is figuratively resurrected and tasked by a covert organization known as Tenet to discover the origins of a bullet that, thanks to “inversion,” can move backwards in time. This phenomena, which extends to individuals as well as objects, has to do with reversed entropy, and is as overly complicated and bewildering as it sounds. Nonetheless, the Protagonist quickly grasps the concept, and embarks on a quest to identify the bullet’s maker.
The Protagonist’s first stop is Mumbai, where a shadowy colleague named Neil (Robert Pattinson) helps him secure a meeting with gun-runner Priya (Dimple Kapadia) by infiltrating a high-rise via the use of reverse bungie cords—a method that typifies Nolan’s gift for grand flights of urban fancy. Priya points our hero in the direction of a Russian kingpin named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) whose wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) once sold him a forged Goya; as punishment, Kat now lives under her spouse’s cruel thumb. Sator is a cold, ruthless villain who spends a good deal of his screen time on a luxury yacht, but he’s not a layabout. Thanks to benefactors from the future, Sator receives regular payments of gold bars as well as clues to the location of a nine-piece device known as the Algorithm that, when constructed, will bring about the apocalypse—something Sator and Earth’s future generations, for reasons not immediately clear, both want to happen.
Even explaining Tenet in such straightforward terms, however, is misleading. From moment to moment, the film seems designed to perplex, and there’s a hanging-on-for-dear-life quality to trying to keep up with the proceedings’ basic logic, all of which is rooted in its title—a palindrome related to the “Sator Square,” a group of five Latin words (Tenet, Sator, Opera, Rotas and Arepo) that all appear in Nolan’s story. Because the sound has been mixed to keep every other spoken word a muffled mystery, following things is more difficult than it should be (at home, subtitles will help alleviate this burden). After a short while, it becomes easier to just admire the portent-laden panoramas of beautiful locales, bevy of attractive and oh-so-serious actors, and reverse-chronology set pieces in which adversaries scuffle in weird, halting, back-and-forth fashion, cars drive the wrong way on the highway, and gunfights and explosions rewind around forward-moving characters. Nolan stages this stuff with exhilarating, outsized flair, frequently distracting attention away from the mounting—and frustrating—questions raised by his tale.
Though nominal answers to some of those queries can be gleaned from the internet’s many diagnostic plot explainers, Tenet’s intricacy is deliberate. As is his trademark, Nolan peppers his script with prolonged exposition dumps about interpersonal allegiances, dangerous plutonium, and the mechanics of time travel. But unlike in his other movies, that blather provides little clarity; it’s merely long-winded gobbledygook meant to sound important while functionally getting everyone to the next scene—thereby making it the verbal equivalent of the narrative’s MacGuffin (i.e the Algorithm). It’s as if the director was intentionally stripping his own style, formulas and thematic preoccupations down to the chilly, striking bone.
Thus, it’s no surprise to see Michael Caine pop up for a single scene as an English espionage so-and-so who has lunch with the Protagonist, or to find Washington’s spy beating up a bunch of baddies in a stainless steel-coated kitchen, or to find the finale devolving into a simultaneously blistering and baffling gunman-raid riff on Inception’s conclusion. There’s never been a more Nolan-y movie than Tenet because Tenet is mostly an academic compilation of the auteur’s favorite things, and the fact that it’s consistently exciting is due to its maker’s gift for infusing action with a mixture of menace, tension, and magnificently icy opulence.
Asked to be merely stout and handsome, Washington and Pattinson exude enough physical presence and confident cool to keep from being totally overwhelmed by the surrounding sound and fury. The same goes for Debicki as the perpetually despondent Kat and Branagh as the seething-with-evil Sator. They’re all as captivating as can be, given that they’re playing archetypes. There’s no depth to their performances because the characters themselves have been imagined in only two dimensions. Yet throughout Tenet, actual depth is far less important than the appearance of it; what matters most, in the end, is surfaces. And in that respect, Nolan rarely lets his audience down, his aesthetics so dynamic and invigorated that they overshadow the fact that what’s going on is a bunch of geopolitical end-of-the-world hogwash.
In other words, it’s best to tune in, drop out, and give yourself over to Tenet’s blaring rhythms, silky suspense and bracing thrills, perhaps none more memorable than a scene in which Washington takes down an adversary by smashing his face in with a cheese grater—a stunning sight that, at home, might just compel you to hit rewind.