“We live in a twilight world.” It’s a secret phrase uttered between strangers working the same side (or so they think). But it might also be a not-so-subtle jab at Hollywood. Nolan is trying to make different kinds of films than the wildly popular Twilight movies. But he’s also savvy enough to know having a matinee idol from those films star in your own ain’t a bad move. Like most of his canon, this new Tenet might be about movie making above all else. Or it might just be a nifty spy movie with time travel thrown into the mix.
We know the tropes of the spy movie. The relentless protagonist who puts the mission above else. The double, and triple crosses. The hidden identities. The globe-hopping exoticism. The billionaire villains. The convoluted mechanisms that keep the action propelling forward, where it doesn’t matter what the end game is, it’s all about the protagonist’s journey. Maybe if there is a noir undercurrent, a femme fatale is thrown in for good measure.
In Tenet, all of these tropes are there. At times it feels like a James Bond movie going through the motions: gorgeous and brutal, but meaningless. As Christopher Nolan is apt to do (and as he did most successfully in Inception‘s “dreams layered into a heist movie” conceit), he layers on top of the tropes an overly convoluted sci-fi conceit that takes what could be banal set pieces and turns them into giddy “aha!” moments where there audience isn’t trying to figure out what happens next, but instead is lost in the moment asking themselves “what is happening here?” In Tenet he takes that to yet another level and has the audience also asking, “what just happened?” Well, as the players in this drama repeatedly tell themselves, “What’s happened happened.”
Nolan’s most successful films have the added layer of emotion and psychological thrills. Memento‘s protagonist’s tragic short-term memory loss obscured his mission and his love for his wife. Inception‘s protagonist was driven by a desire to reunite with his children following severe trauma. Tenet is a colder affair, as spy movies tend to be. Its biggest drawback is that lack of emotional investment. It was never clear why the protagonist (John David Washington) would risk so much for the wife (Elizabeth Debicki) of the film’s cartoonish uber-villain (Kenneth Branagh) but he does. And as much as we know the tropes of the genres Nolan likes to invert, we also know the tropes of a Nolan film. Two big twists I conjured in my mind (one that would’ve added that heartbreak in the end, like the pinwheel in the safe and spinning top on the table in Inception) never came to be. Yes, there is a bit of a twist regarding Robert Pattinson’s character, but it’s not the one myself, and apparently so many other fans, also conjured in their imaginations.
Ultimately, however, it’s not fair to fault a film for what it’s not. The fans didn’t write the screenplay. Nolan did. And this is solid, mid-tier Nolan. The film opens with a thrilling raid at an opera house. Later, there is a fantastic hand-to-hand to combat scene in a freeport, and still later an amazing car chase. The scenes are made all the more thrilling because objects and/or people are moving through the melee with reversed entropy. Yes, I have no idea what that means. And I’m still not sure what happened in Tenet. But its artsy, action-packed and fun complexities sucked me away from all the troubles of the world for two-and-half hours. It made me the masked protagonist…the spy…making a great escape.