Flicks With Nicki – ‘Tenet’Nicki Salcedo. Photo by Dean Hesse.
Before I review “Tenet,” I must explain my feelings about the director. Christopher Nolan owes me $80 and several hours of my life back. I did not enjoy the Dark Knight trilogy or “Inception.” Over the past decade, his movies have gotten to be too long, preachy, and depressing. Still, I am strangely drawn to him because his early projects included great films like “Memento” and “The Prestige.” Nolan tackles themes I enjoy: time, dreams, reality, parallel stories, and science. “Dunkirk” (his shortest recent film) is the perfect blend of characters and visuals. I loved it. Would I love “Tenet,” or would I regret giving Nolan another three hours of my life?
I opted not to see “Tenet” in theaters. Initial viewers mentioned the muffled dialogue and incomprehensible plot. I avoid reviews until after I see a movie and decided to watch at home with subtitles so I could follow along. The comments that follow are spoiler free.
The Protagonist (John David Washington) is a CIA operative who is recruited into a covert organization called Tenet who must stop forces from the future. The CIA uses the code phrase, “We live in a twilight world” and response, “and there are no friends at dusk” to determine who might be a friend or foe in the world of international espionage. With Tenet, the code is “Tenet” and a gesture of interlaced fingers. The future technology is not just time-travel, but also time-backwards-travel. Objects like bullets and guns can be inverted. Events can be reversed. This will help the future halt the environmental destruction that we are causing today.
We meet Neil (Robert Pattinson) who helps our hero in Mumbai. The inverted bullets are linked to an arms dealer Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia) who leads them to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) via his art dealer wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). Sator wants to end the world entirely. The Protagonist must stop him by going forward and backwards through time.
The story is circuitous, but I’m a fan of the time-travel genre. I’ve read H.G. Wells “The Time Machine” and “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell. There are movies like “The Terminator” and “Looper.” If I’m feeling generous, I’d even add the repeating day movies like “Groundhog Day” or interstellar movies about the impact of stasis like “Alien” or “Pandorum.” Let’s not forget the television series “Dr. Who” and the powers of being Time Lord. Time-travel happens for two reasons, to recover a lost love or to protect the future. Basically, I have an honorary degree in time-travel fiction. “Tenet” fits right in.
The issue with Christopher Nolan’s story isn’t the convoluted nature of the plot, but understanding time-travel in any context. “Tenet” gives us a new understanding. We’ve never seen inverted time before. Fortunately, Nolan gives us explicit directions at several points in the movie to help us navigate the story. The scientist tells the Protagonist, “Don’t try to understand it.” Whew. Free pass to sit back and enjoy the backward fighting and time-loops!
It helps to realize that this is an allegorical tale. The hero from H.G. Wells is simply the Time Traveler. Our Protagonist has no name. The characters we meet are archetypes. Priya is the instigator with the notable line, “A masculine front in a man’s world has its uses.” Neil kneels at the side of the Protagonist. Sator immediately brings to mind a satyr, the half-man half-beast from mythology. He taunts his wife with this lesson, “You don’t negotiate with a tiger. You admire a tiger, until it turns on you and you feel it’s true f**cking nature.” Brilliant foreshadowing that she’s not Kat, but a tiger in her own right. Later in the movie we meet soldier Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Ives from the future is “I have.” He’s been there, done that already.
Kenneth Branagh’s dramatic Russian villain was not to my taste, but I generally like him, so I ignored the evil husband versus damsel wife storyline as best I could. I disagreed with the story arc for Priya, but Dimple Kapadia is a wonderful and commanding presence on screen.
John David Washington is worth three hours of my time. He is a mix of John Wick, James Bond, and the Equalizer. The script called for hints of levity. “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago,” he says to the Eastern European thugs before he beats them with a cheese grater and fine china. He walks into the biggest moment of the heist carrying a tiny cup of espresso. He stands next to Elizabeth Debicki without fearing that her stature will overshadow him. Washington is a delightful mix of boxer, billionaire, and spy. Debicki is at once imposing while also being lithe and fragile. We wonder how they will unwind the hands of time.
If you want an easy story, skip this one. Do not watch “Tenet” while you are working on your 2,000-piece pandemic jigsaw puzzle. Even if you love time-travel some parts will not add up. I watched twice and still couldn’t catch how a missing piece of the device got into the wrong hands, but whatever. I had fun.
The good news is that the movie is not depressing. I enjoyed the premise, action, and execution. Watching it was like peeling an onion, crying, then having to put the onion back together in reverse, and feel the tears creep back up my face. It was the first bit of fun I’ve had with Christopher Nolan in a long time.
My youngest likes to remind me that “race car” is “race car” spelled backward. It is her favorite palindrome. I should’ve let her watch “Tenet” with me, but she’s only 10 years old. There’s always the future. Grade B+
Nicki Salcedo is a Decatur resident and Atlanta native. She is a novelist, blogger, and a working mom.
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