Tenet: A Symphony in Concrete

There’s no real point in explaining Tenet: an early scene recommends we shouldn’t even try to, but rather that we should feel it. In the moment, the sentiment comes off as unintentionally funny – an admission that Christopher Nolan’s mechanics are overcomplicated or just plain nonsense – but around an hour later it begins to make more sense. This isn’t a film about time travel in the way you might be used to thinking about it but something else; something more alien and unfamiliar, but also potentially more intuitive.

That welcome invitation to abandon critical thinking is ignored by an opening hour that, pulse-pounding prologue aside, is saturated with awkward exposition and an unshakeable sense of inertia. We open on John David Washington’s ‘Protagonist’, as he orchestrates some sort of nondescript heist at an opera in Kiev, but something is off. Near the end of the scene, a bullet hole appears to reconfigure itself into a wall as the bullet itself reconstructs and shoots backwards through the face of an anonymous antagonist.

Did someone say Miami Vice?

Before we can catch our breath, we’re being whisked from A to B to C to Z as Nolan’s ultra-wordy (and clumsy) script strains to explain itself. In the future, Clémence Poésy’s Barbara tells us, people have worked out a way to reverse the entropy of objects. This ‘inverts’ them so that they run backwards against the flow of time. Things keep appearing in our world that have travelled from some future world, and those things appear to suggest that there will be a third world war. “Nuclear holocaust?” asks the protagonist. “No. Something worse.” is the somewhat amusing response.

From there, things only get more complicated. The guy selling the bullets that go the wrong way turns out to be Russian oligarch and all-around bad guy Andrei Sator (played with devilish glee by a top-form Kenneth Branagh). But to get to him, the protagonist must team up with Robert Pattinson’s enigmatic and immaculately dressed spy Neil in order to get to Sator’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And to get to her, apparently, they have to fly a plane into Oslo Airport to trigger an alarm system to steal a fake painting being used to hold her hostage. But, when they get there what they find is not a painting but rather more things moving in the wrong direction and more plot points that spiral helplessly out of control.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet

The narrative load is somewhat lightened by Nolan’s own brutalist aesthetic, here ramped up to ridiculous levels that feel almost architectural. This is a film fascinated by angles and straight lines and concrete; a film whose score rumbles with the sound of industry and collapse and which blasts itself with retrofuturist blue and magenta. There’s something deeply postmodern about Nolan’s appropriation of mid-20th Century stylisations, about the way concrete can become organic in some Ballardian sense.

It goes without saying that this sentiment extends to Tenet’s characters, who often feel more like buildings than people. There is the idea of an emotional core in Kat; her relationship with her husband and her son more than echoes Inception, but it’s an idea that never emerges beyond the realm of the ideological. Some have likened Tenet to Mann’s Miami Vice, but Mann always felt more interested in the way skyscrapers could become human than in the way humans could become skyscrapers. By contrast, Nolan’s script is mathematical – you could draw a nice diagram of it – and treats its players like pieces on a chessboard, but as a result it sacrifices the ability to see them as anything else; anything other than objects amidst labyrinths of concrete.

What is perhaps most confusing, then, is that Warner Brothers demanded a PG-13/12A cut of this film. Tenet is cold, confusing, and features at least an hour of misleading and complicated exposition – I’m not sure if there’s a single 12-year-old on the planet who would gain any enjoyment out of it. But as a result of the demand for age suitability, the film really suffers. It is possible to make decent action at the PG-13 level – the Mission: Impossible movies make light work of it – but Nolan doesn’t shoot PG-13 action, he shoots R-rated action and cuts down to the PG-13 level. All of this is to say that bullets fire but don’t hit their mark, punches fly through the air but don’t make contact, teeth are pulled out of heads but remain in place (no, really). The violence is there -in fact, it’s omnipresent – but it feels completely dislocated from reality. Disembodied, neutered, dreamlike in its complete failure to connect cause to effect.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet

And yet… and yet. All of that doesn’t really matter. Because despite the hour of exposition, the awful dialogue, a sound design that means you can barely hear what anyone is saying, the lack of an emotional core, and its hollow action, Tenet has a trick up its sleeve. Around an hour in, something happens – you’ll know it when you see it – and the film snaps out of its novelistic slumber to slide into fifth gear for an audacious 90-minute trip. Because the ‘inversion’ conceit is truly an ingenious idea; not necessarily ideologically, but cinematically, and things moving in reverse is perfect IMAX fodder (especially when complemented by that ludicrous score; so loud it could almost be self-parody).

When everything is running smoothly – when we’re watching an extended battle through an abandoned city where half the combatants are running forwards and the other backwards through time – it’s impossible to not be spirited away by it all and to be captured by the magic of the cinema. And, what’s more, to think that despite all its flaws, that I’d rather see more of this than more fucking Marvel movies or another Fast and Furious. The key, of course, is to not try to think too hard about it – to feel it and to get lost in the stream of ludicrous images and even more ludicrous ideas, ideas that loop around themselves until they lose and eventually regain the plot constructed to contain them.

I admit that almost everything in Tenet feels constructed to distract from the fundamental facts that Tenet lacks the means to solve its own paradoxes, that there aren’t really any stakes in a world where time can be infinitely reversed, and that if we thought a little bit harder about it, a lot of it wouldn’t actually make any sense. I mean that last comment from a standpoint both within and outwith Tenet’s own internal logic. But, really, it doesn’t matter that nothing makes sense because it’s just so fun: a huge, beautiful headfuck of things going backwards and forwards simultaneously into infinity whilst Ludwig Göransson’s almost comically ridiculous score transforms your seat into an electric massage chair. For years, Nolan has been the vanguard of the faux-intelligentsia, because his scripts have simultaneously explained themselves whilst congratulating the viewer on understanding them. The real strength of Tenet is that it is the first Nolan film that refuses to bow to the sorts of people who didn’t already know that tenet was a real word.


James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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