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Spy guy meets sci-fi in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’

John David Washington in "Tenet."
John David Washington in "Tenet."Melinda Sue Gordon/Associated Press

“Tenet,” which is finally opening in theaters, is two things: a movie and an event, though the nature of the event has radically changed.

It was always going to be an event, because Christopher Nolan wrote and directed it. Since the “Dark Knight” trilogy (2005-2012), Nolan’s movies have had event status, and deservedly so. He’s a superb technician, with a mastery of action and scale and sweep unmatched among contemporary directors. Nor is Nolan afraid of putting that mastery to use. Thrillingly ambitious, he’s an imperial filmmaker in the tradition of Stanley Kubrick, with whom he shares a no-less-imperial coldness and precision.


Because of COVID-19, that ambition now extends beyond art to economics. This is how “Tenet” has become an event in a very different way. Nolan is the rare director working today whose films exalt the big screen. With most movies, waiting for them to stream or come out on disc only marginally diminishes the viewing experience. With Nolan’s, something is definitely lost. So “Tenet” is the movie the Hollywood studios and theater chains hope will be big enough, exciting enough, pent-up-demanded enough to get people back in theaters.

Maybe it is. Last weekend, “Tenet” opened in 41 countries and took in $53 million. Now it’s opening in 3,000 US theaters — perhaps more, depending on whether states such as California and New York which haven’t reopened movie theaters lift restrictions. Or perhaps fewer. The pandemic isn’t over. Theaters remain just as likely to close again as reopen.

So what about the movie?

Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in "Tenet."
Elizabeth Debicki and John David Washington in "Tenet." Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press

“Tenet,” which I saw on an IMAX screen at a press screening last week, begins with a terrorist attack during an orchestral concert in Kiev. The sequence encapsulates the 2½ hours that follow: bravura action, consistent unexpectedness, far-flung locations (others include Mumbai, London, Oslo — where a 747 goes rogue in a parking lot — the Bay of Naples, Vietnam, Siberia). Simply as filmmaking, the sequence is phenomenally assured. You may not even notice how confusing everything is. Even if you do, you may not even care. It’s not fog-of-war confusion. It’s what-exactly-is going-on-here confusion. Who’s doing this? Why are they doing this? Where are they doing this? (We only learn much later that it’s Kiev.)


Nolan is so good at showing how, which is the movies at their most elemental, that for those 10 minutes nothing else matters. Moviemaking doesn’t come any tauter or with more velocity. But that confusion is a warning. It’s going to apply to the entire movie; and the longer “Tenet” lasts, the more of an issue confusion becomes.

A CIA agent (John David Washington) is involved in the attack as a double agent, trying to foil it. Whys and wherefores aren’t forthcoming. Neither is his name, though he’s in nearly every scene that follows. Whether intentional or not, his namelessness is a reminder that personality and emotion have always mattered less to Nolan than spectacle and execution.

What is forthcoming is the agent’s next assignment. Spy guy has to go sci-fi. It turns out that the future has been sending objects to the present. “We think it’s a kind of inverse radiation,” a scientist explains. “Tenet” is a movie where a lot of explaining takes place. Explanation punctuated by action would be an accurate, if uninteresting, plot summary. These “inverted materials” — “Tenet” also involves a lot of inverted commas — are “technology that can alter an object’s entropy.” Worse, it “can invert the entropy of the world” — meaning complete annihilation.


In practical terms, inverted materials go backward. We see them traveling through time as well as space. The scientist tells the agent, “You’re not shooting the bullet. You’re catching it.” Responds the agent, sensibly enough, “Whoa.” Not only do we see bullets go backward, but smoke, cars, explosions. That sounds pretty cool. Nolan likes doing stuff like that. In “Inception” (2010), when those Parisian buildings roll up in Ellen Page’s dream it’s crazy — and visually stunning. The backwardness in “Tenet,” which doesn’t happen all the time, of course, but often enough, is also crazy — and visually confounding.

Nolan takes this stuff seriously. References are made to free will, cause and effect, the nature of time. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne is mentioned in the end credits. Time twisting isn’t new for Nolan. “Memento” (2000), the movie that put him on the map, is told backward. “Interstellar” (2014) has moments of dipsy-doodle chronology; and “Dunkirk” (2017) did some temporal card-shuffling, too. Telling a story backward sounds bizarre — it is bizarre — but it works. The backward stuff in “Tenet” sounds bizarre — worse than bizarre, goofy — and for a while it works. But once it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

You might well wonder how the present, in the person of Washington, can try to defeat the future. The future isn’t employing just inverted objects. There are nuclear warheads from the former Soviet Union. No, wait, the danger comes from caches of plutonium. Wrong, some world-ending algorithm gets mentioned toward the end of the movies. It’s all a bit . . . confusing. Infinity stones, anyone?


The future also has an agent in the present. He’s a Russian oligarch. Of course he is. Kenneth Branagh’s performance is a very thick slice of ham, with a side order of borscht. Elizabeth Debicki plays his art-dealer wife, Kat. She looks vexed and wan, except when she’s looking wan and vexed. “If I can’t have you, no one else can,” Branagh snarls at her. Dialogue (remember that “Whoa”?) is not a Nolan strength. What elicits that snarl is the Lancelot-like intimations of romance between Kat and Washington’s agent. Their tentativeness is another source of confusion.

Robert Pattinson, left, and John David Washington in "Tenet."
Robert Pattinson, left, and John David Washington in "Tenet." Melinda Sue Gordon/Associated Press

Washington, Denzel’s son, was the best thing in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018). He offers a capable, if stolid, performance. The stolidity from Washington is needed. The occasional raised eyebrow that makes Robert Pattinson so enjoyable as the agent’s sort-of sidekick would pull the rug out from under the movie. The movie, or at least the rug, would itself become an inverted object.

Nolan is a superb craftsman, lucid and exacting in his shooting and editing — all praise, respectively, to Hoyte Van Hoytema and, especially, Jennifer Lame. If Nolan’s lines were any cleaner, they could be pages in a geometry textbook. That’s not a criticism. The same could be said about Fritz Lang or Kubrick. You always know where you are in a scene. This is no small achievement, considering how busy, even hectic, the action sequences are. What you don’t know, necessarily, is why the characters are there. As to why moviegoers are in theaters to watch them, that’s another matter altogether.




Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Robert Pattinson. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 151 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references, brief strong language)

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.