LONDON — Maybe it is our collective enslavement to the superhero-industrial complex, but right now the movie world is looking for a savior. If it turns out to be Christopher Nolan, it wouldn’t be the first time: Films of his, like “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Dunkirk,” have, in years past, “saved” summers, reputations, studios. His “Dark Knight” trilogy sure saved the Warner Bros.-DC partnership — in fact possibly he saved that a bit too hard, with franchise filmmakers ever since toiling in his shadow. Can Nolan save cinema from the coronavirus, its deadliest foe yet? Perhaps, if Covid-19 can be tripped up by the grandfather paradox or has a hitherto undiscovered weakness for sharp tailoring.
The hotly anticipated “Tenet,” opening Aug. 26 in some international territories and Sept. 3 in the United States, is reassuringly massive in every way — except thematically. Ideally presented in 70-millimeter Imax, Nolan’s preferred, towering aspect ratio, arrayed with the telegenic faces of a cast of incipient superstars, gorgeously shot across multiple global locations and pivoting on an elastic, time-bending conceit (more on that later/earlier), the film is undeniably enjoyable, but its giddy grandiosity only serves to highlight the brittleness of its purported braininess. This would hardly be a criticism of any other blockbuster. But Nolan is, by several exploding football fields, the foremost auteur of the “intellectacle,” which combines popcorn-dropping visual ingenuity with all the sedate satisfactions of a medium-grade Sudoku. Within the context of this self-created brand of brainiac entertainment, “Tenet” meets all expectations, except the expectation that it will exceed them. Forgive the circularity of this argument: it’s a side effect of watching the defiantly circular “Tenet.”
With unforeseen irony, the film, which will be largely be shown in limited-capacity theaters, begins in a packed auditorium. It is an opera house in Kyiv and it is being held up. One of the attackers, superbly played by John David Washington, reveals himself to be a C.I.A. agent who has infiltrated the operation to rescue an asset, when a curious thing happens. A bullet, fired by an unknown ally, reverses out of a nearby seat, the wood around the bullet hole desplintering. Scarcely has the agent time to wonder, palindromically, “Huh?” when he is distracted by having to save hundreds of civilians from certain death.
We are a scant few minutes into the film’s 2½-hour run time and it has already delivered: the sequence ends with interior and exterior shots of an explosion, which the editor Jennifer Lame transforms with as perfect an action cut as ever there was. In that microsecond, we’re reminded of something the last few months have conspired to make us forget: cinematic scale. “Tenet” operates on a physiological level, in the stomach-pit rumbles of Ludwig Goransson’s score, and the dilated-pupil responses to Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which delivers the same magnificence whether observing a narratively superfluous catamaran race, or the nap and weave of Jeffrey Kurland’s immaculately creaseless costumes. Seriously, the most mind-boggling aspect of “Tenet” might be the ironing budget.
Washington’s unnamed character is quickly inducted into the mysteries of “inversion,” a process by which an object — or a person — can have its entropy reversed, making it appear, to those of us moving lamely forward through time, as if it is spooling backward. His new inversion-related mission leads him first to a fixer, Neil (a delightful Robert Pattinson), useful for both his action chops and his master’s in physics, then to a Mumbai arms dealer (Dimple Kapadia), whose fortress apartment can only be accessed by bungee jump, and thence to the villainous Ukrainian squillionaire Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who can only be accessed via his wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), a miserable, imperiled art dealer who loathes him.
For once, spoiler sensitivity might be the reviewer’s luckiest break, absolving me of even attempting an explanation of a plot so contorted it’s best not to worry about it. Even the scientist played by Clémence Poésy, here exclusively to deliver exposition, eventually cops out. “Don’t try to understand it, feel it” is the best advice anyone offers. Suffice to say, the time-inversion idea is most impressive not in the film’s grander architecture, which, as widely surmised, loosely resembles a palindrome, but in single scenes in which some elements run forward while others reverse. Similar to “Inception,” which created an entire dream-world mythology only to have its revolving-hallway tussle become its most iconic sequence, in “Tenet,” time inversion poses a civilization-annihilating threat, but the killer scene is, again, a corridor fight. We see it twice, and each time, after your brain clicks to one of the combatants fighting forward in time while the other goes backward, the sheer how-did-they-do-that ingenuity is dazzling.
“Tenet” dazzles the senses, but it does not move the heart — a criticism common to all of Nolan’s original films. And other widely recognized Nolan blind spots are also in evidence: it’s depressing that as fine an actress as Debicki should be saddled with such a cipher role, given a son in lieu of a character and made responsible for the story’s only bad decisions. Everyone else performs to perfection, especially Washington’s history-less protagonist who proves that not all superheroes wear capes. Some wear the hell out of suits so dapper that one of the film’s biggest laughs comes when Nolan talisman Michael Caine glances at Washington, looking better, in his dark-blue ensemble, than possibly any human man has ever looked, and sneers Britishly, “Brooks Brothers is not going to cut it.”
Washington is basically James Bond, forward and backward, a kind of 00700, right down to the occasional wry one-liner. And if it takes megastar charisma to be able to memorably inhabit so vaporous a role, he is also blessed to be playing off an equally unflappable Pattinson — their chemistry, rather than the sexless semi-flirtation between Washington’s hero and Debicki’s damsel, gives the film whatever romance it has.
But it’s not just lack of heart that holds “Tenet” back. Nolan imagines impossible technologies but won’t explore their deeper implications. This is frustrating because in Branagh’s Sator — the film’s most multifaceted character even if all the facets are malevolent — Nolan gets so close. Sator’s motivation in bringing the future to war with the past has chilling ramifications, and maybe it’s the nihilism of these pandemic-era, post-Thanos-snap times, but it sets up an unsatisfied desire to watch the worst-case scenario unfold. Instead, at the moment of maximum potential chaos, Nolan retreats to the relative safety of spy movie convention.
Indeed, take away the time-bending gimmick, and “Tenet” is a series of timidly generic set pieces: heists, car chases, bomb disposals, more heists. But then, the lie of Nolan’s career has been that he makes the traditionally teenage-boy-aimed blockbuster smarter and more adult, when what he really does is ennoble the teenage boy fixations many of us adults still cherish, creating vast, sizzling conceptual landscapes in which all anyone really does is crack safes and blow stuff up.
But gosh, does he blow stuff up good. And that’s not nothing, right now, when it is probably scale and explosions and complex stunts, rather than Deep Meaning, that will be what gets corona-shy moviegoers to brave the multiplex. Perhaps “Tenet” can even provide a nostalgic glimpse of who we were, just months ago on the other side of our own weird experiment in time. At one point, Sator’s yacht is moored off the Amalfi Coast near Pompeii — a city petrified at the height of its decadence by a volcanic explosion it could not see coming. So seems “Tenet,” the kind of hugely expensive, blissfully empty spectacle it is difficult to imagine getting made in the near-to-medium future, now a fascinating artifact of a lovably clueless civilization unaware of the disaster lurking around the corner.
Seek it out, if only to marvel at the entertainingly inane glory of what we once had and are in danger of never having again. Well, that and the suits.
Rated PG-13 for forward and reversed violence, mild headaches, desirable men’s wear. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Opening Aug. 26 in select theaters around the world. Opening Sept. 3 in the United States.