The Hero’s Journey in “Tenet”

No one could possibly mistake “Tenet” as being by anyone but Christopher Nolan. First, it has the kind of budget that only Nolan could get for an original screenplay. There’s so much money in every bursting frame of this opulent film that a scene in which gold bars are literally dumped on a runway feels almost like a self-referential wink. Second, it contains one of those time-twisting narratives that have defined the Nolan brand, one that blends robust action sequences with high-concept stories that viewers have to legitimately strain to follow. Finally, at times, it even seems to echo previous Nolan projects like an album of remastered greatest hits. It is 100% designed as an experience for people who have unpacked films like “The Prestige” and “Memento” late into the night, hoping to give Nolan fans more to chew on than ever before. More certainly seems to be the operating principle of “Tenet,” even if the chewing can get exhausting.

“Tenet” wastes no time, dropping viewers into an attack on a symphony performance in Kiev and barely allowing anyone to get oriented. One of the agents sent in to retrieve a high-profile asset during the assault is a man known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), proving more than capable of carrying a blockbuster film with his charismatic performance). Our hero is captured by the enemy, tortured, and takes a cyanide capsule, as he was ordered to do in training. He survives, and his allegiance to the system and his orders leads to a promotion of sorts, a top-secret assignment that involves a new technology that has the potential to literally rewrite human history.

The Protagonist is taken to a remote facility and introduced to the concept of inverted objects. We look at an object and it is traveling forward through time along with us. That’s obvious from elementary school science class. But what if an object could go in the other direction through history instead? Apparently, objects have been doing exactly this, and the Powers That Be need to control it because if a bullet could be sent back through time, what happens if a nuclear weapon takes the same trip?

Teaming up with a mysterious partner named Neil (a charming Robert Pattinson) our hero tracks inverted objects to a villainous Russian arms dealer named Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). To get closer to this mega-wealthy madman, The Protagonist uses Andrei’s wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) who loathes her abusive husband but is being blackmailed into staying with him via threats that she will lose her son if she doesn’t do exactly what he says. On a very basic level, “Tenet” is about the extremes of unmonitored power. When one becomes so rich and powerful that they can literally shape world events, why not try to shape world history too? Sound a little familiar? Andrei is very much cut from the same cloth as classic Bond villains, complete with unchecked opulence, Russian accent and snarling line delivery. Blend Nolan’s obsession with time-twisting high concepts and his love of classic action construction and you have some idea what “Tenet” feels like.

If “Tenet” can be a hard movie to engage with emotionally or even comprehend narratively, that doesn’t take away from its craftsmanship on a technical level. It’s an impressive film simply to experience, bombarding the viewer with bombastic sound design and gorgeous widescreen cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema. The movie never sags in terms of technical elements and even performance. Everyone is committed to Nolan’s runaway speed. Van Hoytema’s work is vibrant, Jennifer Lame’s editing is tight, and the performances are all good to great. In particular, Pattinson really shines in a playful register that he’s not often allowed to use.