"Don't try to understand it--feel it." Laura (Clemence Poesy) says to John David Washington's character near the beginning of director Christopher Nolan's Tenet. She's speaking about the rules defining Tenet's unique time-bending mechanic, known as "inversion," and her words guide the entire film.
Time travel is nothing new in media--and it's worth noting, Tenet is not a time travel movie per se--but the film provides a fresh perspective on it by delivering a story and setting that encourages viewers to question the nature of reality and existence in the here and now.
Tenet's story involves incredibly high stakes. Early on, it's suggested that the villain, Kenneth Branagh's Andrei Sator, wants to bring about World War III, but it's actually much worse than that. The movie begins in a literally explosive and violent manner, similar in heart-racing action to the beloved beginning of Nolan's The Dark Knight. This shocking opening sets the tone for what to expect throughout--and that is to constantly be on guard and braced for the unexpected.
After the dramatic opening, John David Washington's character, known only as The Protagonist, finds himself recruited by a shadowy organization known as Tenet and sets out on a path to take down Sator, who claims to have the power of a god. On his journey, he meets up with Robert Pattinson's Neil, who draws you in with the mysterious nature of his character from his first scene. The third main character is Elizabeth Debicki's Kat, Sator's tortured and somber wife. Kat's grief and suffering are immediately apparent through Debicki's brilliant performance, and her story is a central throughline. The Protagonist, Neil, and Kat work together to go after Andrei, and their journeys are distinct but connected in an intelligent way that makes sense and feels rewarding.
Built in concept on the foundation of Nolan's earlier work, Inception, Tenet zig-zags through genres, blending mystery with thrills, and time travel--sort of--with blockbuster action, and does so to tell its story in a unique way. "Knowledge divided" is a phrase that pops up again and again in Tenet, and this speaks to how the film is presented. The rules of how time travel works--which themselves are not strictly or clearly defined--are such that you are pushed to question what you see happening on the screen. After a while, you, like the Protagonist, begin to understand that Tenet's world moves in a non-linear fashion. This opens up new possibilities for how the story can unfold and how the motivations--and true realities--of its characters are revealed.
Like the James Bond series, Tenet bounces around to numerous different locations to hammer home the idea that this is a global story that will impact the world. Tenet's scale is a delight, and the gorgeous sights and sounds in lovely locations like Rome and India inspire awe--this movie shines on the big-screen. However, the "end of the world" plot doesn't resonate as much as Nolan's earlier, more character-focused and intimate stories of people and places. I never fully understood the reason behind the high stakes or why Branagh's character so vehemently wanted to end the world. Nevertheless, Tenet offers a story that is engaging and exciting to watch as the layers peel back and the mysteries of the narrative unfold.
The "inversion" time travel conceit, while confusing at times, leads to some genuinely thrilling action moments and scenes that are visually stunning. There is a striking fight scene where The Protagonist squares off with an enemy who is moving backward through time while he is progressing forward. It's a remarkable scene that sticks with you. There is also an extended car chase scene involving a firetruck and a high-speed handoff on a motorway that plays out with some elements moving forward and others backward--and at different points in time--and it melted my mind to consider that what I was seeing is happening from two different perspectives and moments in time.
All of the high-octane action sequences in Tenet are bolstered by the thumping soundtrack by Ludwig Göransson, which is excellent.
Tenet holds many mysteries, involving the characters and how the story unfolds and reveals its many layers, and to say too much would edge too close to spoiler territory. That being said, Washington is fantastic as The Protagonist. The character is strong and smart, and Washington's performance makes you believe that he is just as flummoxed as the viewer about what is happening and why. Though The Protagonist may never fully understand what's happening around him, he's confident and decisive in his actions, while also questioning what it all truly means. A standout scene involves a most inventive and brutal use of a cheese grater.
Pattinson adeptly portrays the sidekick with murky motivations and deep mysteries, all of which are eventually unraveled. The actor carries his air of mystery with confidence, constantly challenging the viewer to mark his every word for clues about the existence of reality and his place in it.
Elizabeth Debicki turns in a stirring performance as Kat. She suffers a horrible existence in Tenet, and Debicki believably communicates her character's pain and turmoil, culminating in a crescendo in the third act that pays off in a satisfying way. Kenneth Branagh, meanwhile, delivers a memorable and haunting take as the villain, but the character is at times too one-note. I never fully connected with his motivations, and thus his character arc fell flat. Some of his scenes turned my stomach but mostly due to the ruthless violence he employed. He didn't come across as a particularly intelligent person despite having created a time travel machine and a doomsday device. That said, Branagh's excellent performance as the heartless villain helped explain the motivation behind the rest of the characters for why they would stop at nothing and sacrifice so much to stop him.
Overall, Tenet is a mind-bender of a movie that has action galore, characters you can for the most part connect with and understand, and a time travel story that doesn't get bogged down in the details and just lets you enjoy the spectacle. It all climaxes with a final action scene that ties together loose ends, intelligently uses the "inversion" mechanics, and delivers a big, Inception-style twist that connects the dots and provides a level of clarity that feels eye-opening. Even then, some questions remain, and fans will no doubt unravel new mysteries as they watch and re-watch in the future.