There’s a fine line between stupid and clever, but there may be another one between clever and profoundly convoluted. Christopher Nolan has spent large parts of his career deftly straddling this line, and his latest opus, Tenet (2020), is another case in point. Like Inception, it’s a calculated mind-bender, a frenetic time-travel thriller filled with dazzling eyeball kicks and ominous undertones, but in this case the clever spills across the line into tortuous so strongly it’s hard not to look at it as much more than a vaguely interesting technical exercise.
Tenet involves a CIA agent, Protagonist (John David Washington), who becomes embroiled in a strange “temporal cold war.” When a mission in Kiev goes wrong, Protagonist attempts to kill himself with a suicide pill to protect his colleagues, only to awaken afterward, informed that his willingness to die has proven he’s trustworthy enough to be initiated into a black ops organization that’s trying to save the world. It seems that nefarious forces in the future are manufacturing “reverse entropy” objects that can move backwards through time, and Protagonist quickly finds himself a pawn in a bizarre time-jumping chess match between backwards- and forwards-moving factions, which soon escalates into a shooting war. Allying with a fellow agent named Neil (Robert Pattinson), he maneuvers himself closer to a key target—Russian arms dealer Sator (Kenneth Branagh)—and falls for Sator’s trapped wife Kate (Elizabeth Debicki), on the way to attempting to counter a massive existential threat to life itself.
It has to be said that Tenet is kind of neat to look at, leveraging slick cinematic effects to capture the baffling tangle of backwards-versus-forwards time-travel action. It’s also neat to think about, in a distant, intellectual way, with its loops-within-loops scene structure that leads to numerous reverse-engineering logistical exercises for the viewer to decode. But the devil is in the details with this one, which is to say the details are so scattered and obviously engineered to conceptual spec that it’s hard to see the broader picture, and thereby feel the film. Washington makes an effective action lead, and Pattinson and Debicki bring likable support, but their characters are so clearly subordinate to the story mechanics that it’s hard to attach much emotion to their behavior. The Cold War trappings and cold equational skiffy calculus add up to, well, coldness, which is only occasionally mitigated by flashes of performer charisma and technical gusto. Many films request a suspension of disbelief, but Tenet asks for much more than that: an active, committed faith in the film’s life-and-death gravitas and conceptual coolness. People going into it with that wide-eyed attitude will probably eat this up, but for the rest of us, it’s just not compelling enough to warrant the multiple views required to decipher its myriad intricacies.