Remember the Rubik’s Cube in the 1980s? That puzzling toy was challenging enough. Then came Rubik’s Snake, then Rubik’s Magic, and meanwhile it’s like, “Whoa, I’m still trying to solve the cube thing!”
This is the experience of watching writer/director Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi action thriller “Tenet” (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; nationwide Thursday where theaters are open), the latest from the auteur of the brilliant “Inception” that’s both utterly dazzling and increasingly bewildering.
Since we are in a pandemic and this is the biggest movie to date since our big-screen entertainment went kablooey, consider seeing it at a drive-in and take safety precautions at indoor theaters. If you’re not feeling up to it yet, that’s OK, too – you have plenty of time to do a ton of physics homework that might help navigate what is essentially a very complicated James Bond movie.
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The globetrotting spy film covers some familiar bases – albeit with Nolan’s signature epic vision – starting with the far-flung locales, from the coast of Vietnam to an abandoned Russian town to an opera house in Kiev, where “Tenet” opens with a white-knuckle mission and a test for The Protagonist (a sensational John David Washington). A new recruit to a super-duper secret organization, our hero goes unnamed because he is the audience’s point of view as we all get a crash course on time inversion. (It’s not time “travel” per se in Nolan’s cinematic science, it’s more about the connection between how some things move forward and others – thanks, entropy! – move backward.)
There’s a megalomaniacal Russian oligarch, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who’s got machinations leading to the proverbial end of the world (but existentially way worse). To stop him, The Protagonist worms his way into the supervillain’s circle by getting to know the bad guy’s abused wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And The Protagonist gets help learning the ins and outs of inversion from his mysterious new partner, Neil (Robert Pattinson).
No one does a wowing action extravaganza like Nolan, and he manages to up his game yet again. There’s a hallway brawl featuring foes moving in and out of time that’s just as insanely enjoyable as his “Inception” fight sequences, cars race and flip forward and backward in an extended chase, and a 747 is purposefully crashed into a building to steal a painting. Overkill? Nah, sublime.
When these eye-popping moments happen, however, you might be too busy trying to put the more confusing aspects of “Tenet” together to enjoy them fully. The mystifying stuff does tend to pile up. “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it,” one character advises, which is easier said than done because part of what makes Nolan’s movies so enjoyable is there’s always something neat to chew on. However, with no tasty nougat, you’re chewing just to chew, and there’s not enough underlying story or explanatory exposition to fully satisfy.
The most exciting gift we do get is Washington in all his charismatic cool, continuing to impress and build on his strong work in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.” The Protagonist might be the closest we’ll ever get to an American 007: A sneering Sator asks him if he has slept with his wife, and Washington’s unfazed operative simply says: “No. Well, not yet.” It’s also fun to see him working beside Pattinson, who exudes a more Bondian suaveness. Sometimes one’s the sidekick, sometimes it’s the other, though they fit together naturally no matter what’s going on in the usually explosive proceedings.
With its innovative splendor and ambition, “Tenet” aims for mind-blowing. What results instead, however, is a little brain-breaking and quite head-scratching.