I Twist Round and Round Until I Meet Myself
Christopher Nolan could be described as an "auteur director". In a different timeline, a different path through Hollywood, Nolan would have made one weird art house film after another, prized by film geeks for his "unique vision" but likely never rising above the kind of Super-8 fare glimpsed at places like Sundance and the like. That might have been his fate, after films like Following, Memento, and Insomnia, were it not for the next big film on his resume: Batman Begins. That film suddenly launched the director's career in a different direction as one of the Hollywood big-budget elite.
That's not to say the director has lost his art house desires, he just gets to make his weird, kooky ideas on big, expensive budgets. He followed his BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. movies with films like The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar, each one of them a high-concept production made with the kind of money most art house directors could only dream of. Many of these films have been good (or, at the very least, stunning in their boldness) but the director does have his flaws: he's not great at action, and worse he often gets caught up in the "big idea" of his film, not always giving us the story for the tress, so to speak.
I know Inception has its detractors, but that film's storytelling is practically sane and linear in comparison to the utter mess that is Tenet. This film is a gargantuan boondoggle of story and structure, a film so in love with itself that he literally reruns its own events within its film, eating its own tail as it goes back and devours its own storytelling. It really wants to go on and on about how cool its concept is when, frankly, nothing in the film makes a lick of sense. It's a big, dumb action movie dressed up with high-concept beats all to tell a tale that would have seemed overwrought in the journal of a 13-year-old with aspirations of Hollywood film making. The fact that this film got a $220 Mil budget should tell you just how much Hollywood is in love with the Nolan brand.
In the film we meet John David Washington's Protagonist (literally "The Protagonist" is the only name he's ever given in the film), a CIA agent on a mission that soon goes bad. He gets captured, and tortured, by the KGB but instead of giving up his men, and his mission, he takes a suicide pill and, seemingly, dies. But the pill was a fake, a coma pill that knocks him out for two weeks. When he wakes up he learns that he passed a test and, now, is the only man suited to go on a new mission: to find out what Tenet is and to stop the coming war that is wrapped up in this weird new organization.
What is Tenet? Well, it's all wrapped up in a war from the future. Apparently, in that future, it's discovered how to reverse the time-polarity of objects and send them hurtling backwards through time. This is illustrated by guns that suck bullets into them when "fired", cars that maneuver backwards as they're driven backwards through time, and the like. All of this is because the future is fucked, basically, and the residents of the future want another chance, so they're going to end the present and re-write time. Our Protagonist, along with his CIA handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), have to find a way to stop the coming war and stop all the time shenanigans before they start (or conclude, or whatever).
So there's a lot going on Tenet but it's hard to say much of it actually makes sense. The film is basically built on the idea of "what if time, but backwards?" (much as Inception was built on "but what if dreams within dreams?" or how The Prestige posited "but what if David Bowie were Nikola Tesla", which at least that one made sense). The idea of time running forwards and backwards is neat, in theory, but it quickly leads to a plot that becomes both horribly confusing to keep up with and then stupidly linear as everything lays out the second time around.
The entire first act of the film is taken up with the Protagonist (god I hate that the character is named that) having long, stupid, technobabble conversations as he tries to figure out what Tenet is and what it all means. He has serious conversations with serious people, all of it filled with gobbledygook that means jack all to the audience. Seriously, I was tuned out by the third conversation like this, and that wasn't even the end of the college film school-level head-up-ass theorizing. It's really just bad writing.
It's around the second act that things start to get a little more interesting. Our heroes get caught up in a heist (not unlike Inception in this regard) that finds them fighting agents from the other direction of time. There are many schemes, fights, car chases, and a lot of backwards-time effects as our agents deal with the chaos caused by agents from the future and their man in the present, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). It's very flashy but still a touch confusing as a weird McGuffin is introduced that the team is supposed to find, and keep from the bad guys. Dumb, but I at least understood the goal.
And then our team crosses over and goes in the other direction, suddenly becoming agents from the future traveling into the past. And this is where the film becomes a lot more linear, and also way more expected. The second the film introduces, all the way back at the beginning of the film, the concept of "people traveling backwards in time", I half-expected that we'd be seeing events from each direction. Sure enough, even though the film plays it like it's some big twist, we suddenly see the exact same scenes again, this time from the other direction. Those people the guys had to fight, the bad men traveling backwards in time that seemed to always be in our heroes' way? Yeah, that was them from the other direction. They'd been fighting themselves all along.
This second act of the film, while not as smart as the film obviously thought it would be, at least has some thrilling moments. I can't say the same for the third act, though, which involves a big action set piece at the temple housing the completed McGuffin. Two teams of Tenet agents (as apparently our heroes are actually working for Tenet all along) converge on the temple from bother direction in time, blasting, shooting, and fighting their way through the agents set to guard the facility. This is the big moment the film has been building towards and... ugh, it's an utter letdown. It's a massive, confusing, hard to follow mess of a climax that highlights just how bad Nolan is at action. He has no eye for it, directing big, dumb, clunky battles that fail to rise to any kind of crescendo.
This section is an utter mess, but then it's capped by the dumbest of finales (and if you want to somehow avoid spoilers at this point, skip to the next paragraph): it's revealed that the Protagonist, who has been on this quest to figure out Tenet, find out who he's working for, and save the world, was set on this quest... by himself. He's not only the last person to join Tenet but also the guy who founded it all the way back in the day. The film, once again, eats its own tail. I could feel the film acting all smug, saying, "you didn't see this coming, did you?" Yes, yes I did, because it's the dumb, stupid, obvious twist to this whole story. You aren't smart, Tenet, you just think you are, and that's somehow even worse.
I haven't hated a film from Christopher Nolan before, but I really hated this movie. It's tedious chore of a film, clocking in at two-and-a-half hours of mindless stupidity. It rarely finds its feet, with actors that seem more confused by what they're trying to say and a script that gives no one (including the audience) anything to care about. This is a bad movie dressed up like a good one, and it never should have gotten the green-light. Hopefully Warner Bros. learned their lesson after this and will given Nolan a slightly tighter leash going forward because this is his pure, unadulterated, art house id run amok and I hated absolutely every bit of it.
Do yourself a favor and don't watch Tenet. It did the one thing I never thought would be possible: it made time travel boring and not in the least bit entertaining.