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John David Washington and Robert Pattinson sit in a car in Tenet Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

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Christopher Nolan’s Tenet feels like a loud, oppressive math exam

The movie is a narrative and aesthetic puzzle, but not a fun one

Christopher Nolan’s new film Tenet technically hit theaters in August. But due to theater closures and lockdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic around the world, very few people actually saw the movie in theaters. With the film now available on PVOD, we’re reupping our review for the at-home audience that may finally be considering the film.

“Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” a scientist tells John David Washington’s unnamed protagonist early on in Tenet, as she teaches him how to wield time-inverted objects. Her advice may be a metatextual line from writer-director Christopher Nolan, priming the audience: Tenet explores not only time-inverted objects, but other time-related technology, in a narrative so fast-paced that viewers could have brain aneurysms if they tried to fully understand it all.

Tenet isn’t technically a time-travel movie, in that the characters don’t relocate from one moment into another by “traveling” there. But it certainly involves enough devices that mess with the fabric of time, as communication from the future is made possible through time inversion — a fact not made abundantly clear in the trailers. The trailers focus on the visually cool tricks of inversion — objects and people moving backward — but this fictional science creates a mind-blowing array of consequences, which take considerable time to digest, as several characters mention throughout the film. It’s telling when the movie’s own characters can’t fully comprehend what’s going on, because the story logistics are so thorny. Tenet makes Inception seem like a straightforward action thriller by comparison.

Nolan fully understands his strengths at crafting those thrillers. Tenet is at its best in the first third, when it pokes fun at its own homage to James Bond, via witticisms about British snobbery and sleek menswear. Unfortunately, this humor doesn’t continue, as the film’s stakes escalate. Washington starts off as a CIA operative who fails his mission to save a high-ranking American during an opera-house terrorist attack in Ukraine. After downing a suicide pill, he wakes up to Martin Donovan gently informing him that the mission was a loyalty test (he passed) and that the palindromic word “Tenet” is now his new code word and mission. Washington hires a plucky British intelligence agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson) to help him track down the materials needed for the inverted bullets used in the assassination. They travel from an arms dealer in India, Priya (Dimple Kapadia), to another arms dealer in Russia, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who has blackmailed his wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) to remain in their unhappy marriage, and who has ties to time inversion.

Characters run from an exploding building in Tenet Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

Washington and Neil try to free Kat and her child from Sator’s abusive grip, while also preventing him from securing a weapon that could start a time-inverted nuclear holocaust. Their efforts involve some spectacular setpieces, one of which involves a heist in a freeport, where a mysterious turnstile spits out a masked assailant moving in reverse. Another sequence includes a spectacular car crash and multiple time-inverted vehicles moving backward. A third has two teams of armed ops moving in opposite directions in time, all trying to figure out what exactly happens in the future, so they can prevent Sator from ending the world. These may sound like spoilers, but all this description covers maybe a tenth of what actually happens in Tenet. It’s only the tip of the action iceberg.

It’s impossible to understand most of what happens in Tenet by watching the movie. Worried the mechanics of time inversion might trip me up, I boned up on the second law of thermodynamics so I could focus on the plot instead of the science. (This was a waste of time.) I watched the film twice in one day, hoping a second viewing would aid my comprehension. I later read a detailed plot synopsis, and was surprised at its description of multiple plot points that I had certainly interpreted differently. Even after rereading the synopsis multiple times, I’m not sure I could ever explain Tenet in clear detail.

You both need and don’t need to understand time inversion to make sense of Tenet. Even if you had a master’s degree in physics, like Neil, you’d likely struggle to follow the plot. “Try and keep up,” Washington glibly tells his British partner while explaining the science. This is another meta in-joke from Nolan, but it’s also trolling, because the director could have made some very different production choices to ease the audience’s cognizance. Sure, the fast-moving narrative, which clips from one location to another and from one point in time to another, often without notice, is one thing. Understanding who’s been inverted, when, and how it affects other characters is another.

But there’s another reason Tenet is hard to understand, and that falls on one of Nolan’s major motifs as much as on his time-oriented science-fiction premise: so much of the movie’s dialogue is incomprehensible. Inverted characters need oxygen masks, due to the nature of inverted molecules. Characters occasionally speak while masked (a relatable phenomenon, as the pandemic drags on), but their conversation is muffled, much like Tom Hardy’s indecipherable masked Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

John David Washington stands on a boat, grabbing a thick black rope in Tenet Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon / Warner Bros.

When masks aren’t occluding the character dialogue, yet another Nolan motif is doing it instead: thunderous sound design. Swooping helicopters, crashing planes, whooshing boats, and other machinery surround the characters in cacophony. Ludwig Göransson’s booming score gets in the way as well. The sound mix renders some of the dialogue virtually moot. For a movie this complicated, where every line counts toward understanding the film’s dense plot machinations, and with Nolan including several scenes and throwaway characters written solely for explicit exposition, it’s a downright storytelling failure to make it this difficult to hear his characters.

When the scientist advises Washington, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” it’s like he’s evoking Nolan’s Interstellar, a film also governed by a highly conceptual scientific understanding of time. Interstellar is also dense with scientific mumbo-jumbo, but it has an emotionally moving core. The sole source of emotional connection in Tenet is Kat’s character arc, with her primordial desire to save her son from her abusive husband. But that dramatic storyline is only a minor subplot, designed solely to serve the bigger scheme of time-inverted nuclear holocaust. In the scene where Washington, Neil, and Kat realize Sator plans to annihilate humanity, Kat cries out about her son. It’s an absurd, desperate attempt to weave in an emotional motive.

As it turns out, “Don’t try to understand it, feel it” is mixed advice. Viewers won’t be able to fully understand Tenet’s dialogue, and they’re likely to have the same problem in trying to understand its convoluted plot. But there isn’t much there to feel, either, making the experience feel more like a math exam than a mesmerizing action film. Some viewers may enjoy the Sisyphean task of watching and rewatching to fully make sense of the film. Others will wind up scratching our heads, trying to figure out not only what’s going on at any moment onscreen, but also why we should care about any of the characters. It’s up to viewers to decide whether they enjoy the dense narrative puzzle Nolan has created for them to untangle.

Tenet is now available on digital and Blu-ray.