Christopher Nolan constructs epic odes to human faith and its dangers. His cinematic worlds are spaces in which humanity only can surpass itself by taking a courageous leap out into the void. His vision of transcendence is powered by a reverence for human fortitude, bolstered by a sense that human destiny has a reciprocal relationship to the order of the universe. The deities guiding human progress are humanity’s future selves: by dreaming of becoming greater humanity achieves greatness. The villains of Nolan’s films are those who have lost faith and embed their cynicism into nihilistic crusades.
Nolan’s time-bending spy adventure, Tenet, embodies this all to a tee, making it one of Nolan’s most complete expressions of his ideology. It is also his most dispassionate work, a film so fatalistic that it loses interest in human agency. If Cameron’s Terminator films posed that there was “no fate but what we make,” Nolan’s Tenet posits a more complicated kind of determinism in which human beings are simultaneously the creators and the product of the past and future. It’s an idea so abstract it defies typical narrative momentum.
In plot architecture this story is essentially just a Mission: Impossible movie, but one that spirals off into ever-more existential territory. Nolan has always had a penchant for dry exposition. In Inception, Nolan gave us a film that endlessly explained its own intricate logic. Here, though, Nolan seems to want both the characters and the audience to feel somewhat lost. Early on, a character says that to understand a causality that is simultaneously backwards and forwards in time, you just have “feel” your way through it.
So, while in Tenet, characters opine endlessly about time and fate and entropy in that characteristically direct, dry, and stiff approach of Nolan’s, Nolan also oddly buries that exposition in the sound mix (and has claimed in interviews that this was intentional and he is unrepentant about this choice). You’ll have to have subtitles on if you want to be able to understand them. The sound mix here is bafflingly, stubbornly obtuse.
The film’s convoluted setpieces and heists flow past the audience and characters in blunt-force disorientation, which is mostly diverting up until the confusing and limp climax, which stages a military battle across two planes of time without much in the way imagination, going for prosaic “wartime” chaos and aesthetic austerity when it should be going for something either more precisely choreographed or something more genuinely awe-inducing.
Still, in the preceding hours, Tenet does develop an appealing tone and pace, a percussive parade of spy movie clichés and tropes presented in a way that is so dryly fatalistic and aloof, it’s almost pure. The parent-child relationships that served as the fulcrum of the existential shenanigans in Inception and Interstellar reappear here in an abstract, condensed form: narrative shorthand.
What propels Tenet is not love, or even revenge, but the idea that to accept one’s place as subservient to the universe is the ultimate self-actualization. Nolan seems to be fully aware of the way that embracing this concept bleeds out conventional blockbuster narrative. The lead character is simply known as the Protagonist: a human abstraction. (Nolan was once in talks to make a film adaptation of The Prisoner, and this seems like a nod to that famously philosophical spy series and its unnamed hero.)
In the role, John David Washington seems to lean into this sense of abstraction, giving us a chilly, distant, analytical hero. His cool-as-ice line delivery and physical swagger does have a unique appeal (even if Nolan’s attempt at James Bond-style banter is largely ineffectual; wit has never been Nolan’s strong suit).
The movie’s secondary protagonist, played by the unearthly Elizabeth Debicki, is similarly frosty, though she is permitted to manifest more sense of interior emotion and psychology as she inhabits the film’s fundamentally schematic scenes.
Only Robert Pattinson seems to be having fun, dressed up like a dandyish expat and dryly and smugly moving through each scene with a detached amusement that calls to mind the way Alec Guinness might have approached similar material. He should be commended for finding some humanity in the film’s portentous fatalism.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for composer Ludwig Göransson, whose deafening, percussive sonic landscape picks up from where Hand Zimmer’s deafenkng collaborations with Nolan left off, but lack Zimmer’s talent for mingling experimental sonic textures with emotionally resonant melodic and harmonic expressions. Nolan needs a composer who can embrace his aesthetics and themes while also expanding the film’s emotional palette.
In cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, though, Nolan has found a collaborator who has greatly enhanced the clarity and efficiency of his creations. Hoyte van Hoytema brings a style of composition to Nolan’s filmmaking that feels as structural as Nolan’s approach to storytelling, and Tenet feels intensely and enigmatically architectural in a way that the Escher-inspired Inception never did.
If the mysteries Tenet attempts to express in its images of monolithic stone and industrial machinery never achieve the resonance Nolan seeks, they are at least enough to engage on the level of a diverting curiosity. Take him or leave him, Nolan remains a singular authorial voice, and Tenet is something no other filmmaker would have made. That, in and of itself, is a kind of artistic accomplishment.