Christopher Nolan’s cinematic worlds are spaces in which humanity only can surpass itself by taking a courageous leap into the void. His vision of transcendence is infused by a reverence for human fortitude, suggesting that human destiny has a reciprocal relationship to the fabric and trajectory of the universe. The deities that guide human progress are shadows of humanity’s future selves. In dreaming of becoming a greater version of itself, humanity achieves greatness. For Nolan, imagination has the power of prophecy.
Nolan’s time-bending spy adventure, Tenet, embodies this all to a tee, making it one of Nolan’s most complete expressions of this 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 determinism in which human beings are simultaneously authors of and the product of bidirectional causality. In Tenet, the future can shape the past. It’s an idea so abstract that it defies typical narrative momentum.
Nolan seems to want both the characters and the audience to feel somewhat adrift. Early on, a character explains that to manipulate causality that flows simultaneously backwards and forwards in time, you have to “feel” your way through it. Still, in its essential plot structure, Tenet is just a Mission: Impossible-style spy blockbuster that spirals off into existential territory, so if the territory is alien, then the journey itself is familiar.
The film’s convoluted setpieces and heists flow past the audience and characters in blunt-force disorientation. They’re mostly diverting up until the confusing and limp climax, which stages a military battle across two planes of time. This intriguing idea seeks to reinvent the large-scale James Bond climaxes of yore with a psychedelic spin, but Nolan sketches it out without much visual imagination. This big showdown opts for prosaic “wartime” chaos and aesthetic austerity when it should be going for something more jaw-dropping.
More effective is the climax’s dramatic emphasis on the power of a parent-child bond. As in Interstellar, parental love shapes the universe. But what truly propels Tenet is not love, or even its sibling, revenge, but a kind of determined passivity. To accept one’s subservience to the universe is the ultimate self-actualization.
The lead character is simply known as the Protagonist: a human abstraction. In the role, John David Washington leans into this characterization, giving us a chilly, distant, analytical hero. His cool-as-ice delivery and confident swagger does have a unique appeal (even if Nolan’s attempt at James Bond-style banter is largely robotic; 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 interior emotion and psychology. Her character’s narrative self-actualization gives the movie its fulcrum; others exist to enable it and bear witness.
Only Robert Pattinson seems to be having fun, dressed up like a dandyish expat while dryly smirking 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 exuberance 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 collaborations with Nolan left off, but lack Zimmer’s talent for mingling experimental sonic textures with more 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 an ideal collaborator. Hoyte van Hoytema brings a style of composition to Nolan’s filmmaking that feels as structural as Nolan’s approach to storytelling. Tenet feels enigmatically architectural in a way that the Escher-inspired Inception never did.
For all of its failings, the mysteries Tenet attempts to express in its images of monolithic stone and industrial machinery achieve a measure of fascination. 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.