Ever want to be a screenwriter? Well, Christopher Nolan gives you that chance with Tenet – and I really don't mean that in a derogatory way. It's just it demands that you, as an audience member, do a lot of the writing work. You will be given an extraordinary number of events, not all of them are explained (even if Michael Caine doing his best Basil Exposition gives it a good go). But you will have to conjure up events that are not seen on screen and just alluded to, or provide explanations as to why someone would install glass with bullet holes already in them – it's there if you think about it – but you will have to think about it. Some people will not think about it, or not want to think about it, and as someone travelling from the future when this movie is released, I can tell you that it is already littered with hundreds of YouTube videos dedicated to either pointing out all the plot holes in Tenet and others travelling in the opposite direction and filling in all those holes.
So anyway, yes, I've just been to see a film and that film was Tenet. Which turned out to be that rarest of things, a hard sci-fi action-adventure that assumes the audience can catch up as quickly or more quickly than the characters. And by leaving huge amounts of plot and character unfilled in, forces you to do just that or give up and leave the cinema. This film should not be getting a sequel. It is a sequel to itself. If you want a sequel, watch the film again, knowing what you know. Any sequel – or prequel – should take place in your own head, inspire copious amounts of fanfiction and arguments at bars – or on Zoom – between men of a certain age, girth and beard growth. I certainly know I'll be doing that. And no it is not a sequel to Inception either. Thematically it is a sequel to Memento instead.
Because Nolan has also found a way to take what he had in Memento , two storylines heading in different directions in time that finally merge, and literalise that aesthetic with time travel and presenting it with the finest that Michael Bay has to offer. If you like the sound of this, you should like the film. If you don't then it's likely you won't.
There are many antecedents to the palindromic Tenet – from Isaac Asimov's The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline to Martin Amis' Time's Arrow. But the one that seems to be the most relevant to Tenet is the Red Dwarf episode Backwards, which only followed the time travel rules it established when it was funny- and at least made more sense than Looper. At no point does anyone in Tenet go to the toilet, and the film may be lesser for that. If you need special masks to breathe the air, what do you need to excrete bodily solids or fluids? Red Dwarf scored points for going there. But at least Tenet kicks Looper around the floor like the wheeling unthinking scrap of a movie it is.
Tenet doesn't need to make jokes, indeed, aside from one Michael Caine moment (and there is just one), it is a humourless movie. It excels in big backdrops off the coast of Italy, in India, through the street of London, and into Eastern Europe, but also fills them with as much cliche – the Eastern European grunting thugs, the bad guys and their yachts, the obsession with plutonium and the thuggish army grunts. But maybe it needs to give us such easy handholds before it (literally) flips the script. Along the way, it throws in some gripping and tantalising performances from the cast, that ask so many questions – and if you buy into it, let you provide the answers.
John David Washington plays a convincing straight man as if he's faking it, someone running a Red Queen's Race to stay in the same place. Robert Pattinson the cheeky chappy, much more at ease, seemingly at odds with the situation, and instantly chummy. It seems a misstep, but it is one that flies up into the air and reassembles itself into the brickwork of the film by the end, like some of the temporal action sequences, like it was there all along. Kenneth Branagh is a bit of a Russian mobster hammy character, but his moments with Elizabeth Debicki are properly frightening and consistent with his encroaching nihilism.
There are very small moments of stupidity. If you are hiring a car, for a heist would you really choose the one with the clearly flagged up broken wing mirror? But others – such as asking if someone would install glass sheets in a facility with bullet holes already in them are answered when you realise just who it was who installed them in the first place…
Overall, this is probably a very silly film that means little, with added complexity to substitute for human truths – but seeing it in an actual cinema, my first for five months, on the biggest IMAX screen I could find – BFI IMAX at Waterloo, helped give the whole thing enough gravitas to distract from any of that. And it made a welcome return to the medium of cinema. It's not the big action set pieces that benefit from this the most, rather the vistas across the Italian coasts – this might be the closest you get to such a holiday for quite some time too. Also watching a good percentage of the movie through fogged up glasses only added to the mystery…
Tenet is released in the UK and Canada this Wednesday, 26th of August and in the USA on Thursday.3rd of September.