Saving the world, backward, makes 'Tenet' an uneven Christopher Nolan thriller
"Tenet" is about saving the world, backward and in heels.
Off-screen, Christopher Nolan's quarter-billion-dollar palindrome shoulders a ridiculous load of COVID-defying, multiplex-rescuing, world-saving expectations. A few days ago Warner Brothers released a new trailer for "Tenet," one that begins with a shot of John David Washington of "BlacKkKlansman" sporting a face mask. His character is about to slip-slide back in time to ward off a global disaster.
How corona can you get? Can a single movie save 2020 for so many uneasily reopening U.S. theaters, not to mention the worldwide markets enjoying better pandemic management?
Is "Tenet" worth the risk?
Is any film?
Compelling questions, ducked for now in favor of an attempt to sort through, without spoilage, why "Tenet" is an ambitious letdown.
There are some beautiful backward sights to behold: exploded buildings magically reassembling, or bullets zwooping back, in reverse motion, into the weapons from whence they came. But the movie has a way of tripping over itself, whichever direction it's going, when it's time to talk turkey about World War III or the Tesseract-level-scary "algorithm" everybody's after.
Some movies make it a tantalizing challenge to keep up. "Tenet" makes it not much fun, and Nolan the producer would surely acknowledge Nolan the screenwriter made things extra-tough on Nolan, the director.
The movie begins with a blast of recent history recycled for pulp: a terrorist siege of the Kiev opera house, interrupted by counterterrorism forces. Washington, who goes only by "The Protagonist," is an American agent whose follow-up assignment may be his last.
Working with the shadowy, extremely well-tailored Neil (Robert Pattinson, whose hair remains a quantum physics wonder), our hero slides into the company of the haunted art appraiser Kat (Elizabeth Debecki), miserably married to Russian arms dealer and sadistic yacht-dweller Andrei. He is played by Kenneth Branagh as a soul-sick Bond villain whose mind is on larger things.
Those things involve the central driver of "Tenet": time inversion, with the trajectory of objects and events reversed, chaotically, at will. The film shares much in common with Nolan's livelier "Inception," with periodically deadly exposition dumps explaining the rules of the game before we get to the cool stuff. There's an eccentric, back-and-forth highway shootout, with one set of characters flowing backward in time, mixing it up with another set charging forward. Elsewhere the mayhem is utterly linear, such as a hijacked jumbo jet plowing across a tarmac and through the wall of a supersecret airport facility.
Such scenes of mass destruction help compensate for what's missing. There's a hole where the connection between Kat and Protagonist belongs. The suspense relies heavily on ticking clocks within ticking clocks: Four minutes to go before the time bombs go off, or 10 seconds to get out of there before the deadly gas kills everybody. Kat and The Protagonist undergo frequent physical beatings; the violence becomes a chore, too. Only the reverse mayhem realm offers something new.
That'll be enough for many — that, plus the men's suits, which give the insanely scenic Italian villas and steady globetrotting from Mumbai to Denmark to Norway to Michael Caine a run for Nolan's budget. The filmmaker had the chance here to make his own pretzel of a Bond film. It's a sleek, noisy diversion, with the sound mix, blended with composer Ludwig Goransson's palin-drone of a score, winning every war with the actors' dialogue.
"Tenet" didn't screen for critics based in New York or Los Angeles, because "Tenet" won't be opening there, at least in traditional indoor venues, due to COVID-19. But Chicago's COVID numbers aren't great, either. The Chicago screening took place at the Music Box Theatre, with a couple of dozen writers spaced out, big-time, in a 748-seat auditorium. The movie looks travelogue-handsome as projected on 70-millimeter film, as it will be in its Music Box run.
Time will tell if reopening the theaters turns out fine or turns out less than fine. I wish we could turn back time to fix a few things or jump ahead to get a peek at where we'll be in 2021. I wish "Tenet" exploited its own ideas more dynamically. Nolan's a prodigious talent. But no major director, I suppose, can avoid going sideways from time to time.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language)
Running time: 2:31