A man (John David Washington), who may or may not work for some kind of mysterious organisation, finds himself investigating strange new weaponry which has been sent backwards through time. With the help of his sidekick (Robert Pattinson), he seeks to uncover where it’s coming from, and probably save the world.
Christopher Nolan’s two biggest contributions to popular cinema are prioritising real-life visual effects over CGI, and creating mainstream blockbusters which genuinely make you think. The former is in full force here, with dazzling cinematography and breathtaking action which will undoubtedly look good 20 years from now. But it’s in service of a sloppy and confusing story, which probably means no-one is going to be watching it 20 years from now.
Nolan seems to have forgotten the most basic tenets of storytelling as he leaps between impressive set pieces, filling the gaps with baffling expository information at wildly disparate locations with no connecting tissue. Its breakneck pace seems designed, like The Rise of Skywalker, to deny us the opportunity to think about what’s happening so we overlook the staggering leaps of convenience. Memento showed Nolan can handle a reverse story with clarity and apparent ease, and in comparison Tenet feels like a step backwards.
The key to a decent film about time travel is having clearly established rules. They don’t have to be scientifically accurate, but we should understand how one thing affects another. Tenet‘s central idea – of a future conflict being resolved in the past – is essentially The Terminator, but with spaghetti bowl complexity and a make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to the rules. The idea that some objects can travel back in time by reversing their entropy is so fleetingly explained (“don’t think about it”) that all subsequent scenes which rely on it defy comprehension; that is, most of the film. If you made an object which goes back in time, wouldn’t it immediately un-make itself?
While Nolan has been known to take liberties with reality (Batman recovering from a snapped spine in three months springs to mind) in Tenet any pretence at plausibility, or even internal coherence, is abandoned without a backward glance. It’s a shame that the maker of Interstellar, which showed us what a black hole looks like before NASA, here gives us more bad science than Ben Goldacre.
But it’s not only the story that’s backwards, as the only prominent female character is used as a pawn by the men throughout, even being dragged comatose on a stretcher through one lengthy action sequence, and in time-honoured tradition it features a cod-accented Russian villain (Kenneth Branagh). It’s a testament to how bad the storytelling is that in spite of all the remarkable visuals and eye-popping action it still feels long, boring and pointless. It’s not clear how Nolan has produced such a prize turkey, but maybe it’s wise to take Tenet‘s own advice and not think about it.