Out of Time

In these dire times for movies, one has to be thankful for the mere existence of Tenet, a big-budget, big-screen experience in the age of direct-to-streaming.  Though released well over a month ago, it remains in multiplexes simply due to the lack of any theatrical output to replace it.

As expected for a time-travel movie – one directed by Christopher Nolan, no less – Tenet’s storyline is far too elaborate to summarize in detail, but here’s the gist: a government agent known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington), is recruited by a mysterious organization after a mission gone bad.  His new employers introduce him to the existence of inversion: the future-manufactured ability to reverse the flow of time for certain objects and people.  A malicious future-faction is using inversion to wage a secret war with the present, and it’s the Protagonist’s mission to stop it.  Along the way, he crosses paths with agency contact Neil (Robert Pattinson), villainous timeline-liaison Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and Sator’s kept wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).

From then on Tenet becomes an intriguing genre hybrid, blending metaphysical science-fiction with spy-movie intrigue.  Though certainly original, the combination’s many narrative demands sometimes prove too much for the movie to bear.  The plot is clever in a mechanical sort of way, but its barrage of characters and storylines starts to grow convoluted even before the full introduction of the time travel elements.  Thankfully, Nolan keeps the pace brisk with a variety of beautiful locales and extended scenes of eye-popping action.  These sequences and their reality-bending visuals are the one place Tenet completely hits its mark, giving us a surreal-yet-grounded vision of time travel that we haven’t seen before. 

Unfortunately, emotional stakes remain out of Nolan’s reach, with scenes that should pack a punch leaving one cold.  The subplot with Kat’s young son, meant to be the human heart of the movie, never elicits any real sympathy; reducing the child to an obvious emotional prop.  Beyond some vague promises of universal destruction, the movie gives us little to care about once one looks beyond its admittedly impressive surface.

Even though the characters of Tenet are essentially functional, some of the cast avoids being swallowed up by the deluge of plot and set-pieces.  Washington is perfectly fine in the lead role, but his performance never transcends the pawn-like cypher of the movie’s script.  Faring somewhat better are Pattinson and Branagh, who give their stock characters enough flavor to make an impression.

It will be interesting to see how time treats Tenet, the minutiae of which are nigh-impossible to grasp on a first viewing.  The instant-classic status of Inception has already passed it by, but reception has been too positive to deem it a unanimous misfire.  For me it falls somewhere in between: it doesn’t see Nolan at his brainy, crowd-pleasing best; but it still satisfies as an ambitious, hugely cinematic spectacle.


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