Friday Film Review--"Tenet"

Oct 7, 2020

The new film “Tenet” is a spectacular, baffling mixture of James Bond-style action and speculative science fiction.    Rick Brough gives us his take for the Friday Film Review.

Christopher Nolan first made a splash at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival with “Memento” a thriller where the hero suffered from short-term memory loss, and his story was told backwards.

Since then, Nolan has added a Batman trilogy and “Dunkirk” to his resume, but he’s still renowned for stories that can warp your mind—or yank your chain.    Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

His latest film stars John David Washington as a CIA agent who is such an International Man of Mystery that he is just named “Protagonist”.

He’s recruited by a shadowy organization called “Tenet” and told the world is in jeopardy.    From nuclear holocaust? he asks.   No, he’s told, it’s worse than that.

In the early scenes, he’s jumping from one dramatic locale to another, meeting a succession of characters who are versions of Basil Exposition, explaining the plot.     One of these, seen briefly, is Michael Caine, a Nolan regular.

So what’s the menace?   Well… someone in the future has been able to reverse the process of entropy in objects.

The result is a kind of time travel, or actions happening in reverse.   

In an early scene, the hero doesn’t fire a bullet into a wall.   The bullet is sucked out of the wall, and the Protagonist’s gun “catches it.”    He’s told, “Don’t try to understand it, just feel it.”   Thanks for clearing that up.

That demonstration is just “2 plus 2 equals 4” compared to the action-movie complications that Nolan whips up.    You have characters from different time dimensions fighting each other. (Or maybe they’re the same person.)   There are chase scenes between the good guys in real time, and the bad guys, reversed.    And the climax is a firefight where the strategy depends on one group of soldiers in real time, and another group in reverse.

Even if you can’t get your arms around the sci-fi mechanics of the plot (and you suspect that Nolan sometimes establishes the rules, only to subvert them), you’re persuaded to stick with the movie because it also has some compelling characters.

Kenneth Branagh is the film’s villain, a billionaire Russian arms dealer, who has been fated to discover the time-inversion devices, hidden by the future in the past.     He’s also a hard-core nihilist—a scary proposition when the guy has technology at his fingertips that could, basically, wipe out existence.

His wife, played by the willowy, six-foot-2 blond beauty Elizabeth Debicki (who looks like a special-effect herself) is quietly seething with fear and hatred for her husband.    But she doesn’t leave him for fear of losing her son.

And John David Washington (who first came to fame in “BlacKkKlansman”) is more than just an action figure.    He develops a fierce emotional attachment to the wife—so, you know, there’s something  personal here, besides saving the world.   

He’s also a cog, trying to figure out how the machinery around him works.   Or is he just a cog?    Can he get answers from his sardonic sidekick (played by Robert Pattinson) whose philosophy is “What happens, happens”?

“Tenet” was supposed to be the big Event, for the summer movie season that never was.    Hollywood probably expected it to be a money-maker, just because film geeks would see it a dozen times to figure out what’s going on.    

Now, it’s on the big screen, as theaters tentatively open, such as the Redstone,  where customers are wearing their masks, assigned seating places them at an appropriate distance, and every other row is taped off.

“Tenet” is a strange new film for a strange new world.    For being infuriating, but intriguing, I’m going to give it 3-and-a-half stars out of five.    Or have I already?

For the Friday Film Review, I’m Rick Brough.