“Pete and Repeat went out in a boat. Pete fell out. Who was left?” is a cute riddle, but even the least discriminating 5-year-old will tell you that it’s not much of a story. Sure there are characters, an inciting incident, and twist ending for anyone who cares to put in the effort. Yet the character development is a bit thin, and it doesn’t say much about the human condition.
With his latest cinematic brain-teaser, Tenet, writer/director Christopher Nolan gives the cinematic equivalent of the endless riddle. John David Washington plays The Protagonist, a member of a CIA special forces unit. After a mission in a Ukranian opera house, he’s captured and takes a suicide pill rather than give in to torture. Except the whole thing was a test. And he passed.
His next mission thrusts him into a time-travel cold war. Weapons are being sent back in time, though from whom and to what end is unknown. Rather than suddenly popping into existence, as in most time-travel stories, the weapons are “inverted,” moving backward through time at the same speed that everything else is moving forward. You don’t fire an inverted bullet. You catch it. The way this works visually is pretty cool with small objects and jaw-dropping when applied to people, speeding cars, and explosions.
At the center of the conflict is a health-obsessed Russian arms dealer, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and his young wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), whom he holds hostage by controlling her access to their son. To get to them, The Protagonist partners with Neil (Robert Pattinson), a mysterious genius with a knack for getting into places. Yet for all the attempts to give the characters some nuance, they’re so busy explaining the riddle that they never achieve any depth.
Equal parts science fiction and espionage thriller, Nolan never misses an opportunity to fill the screen with beautiful locations and mind-bending action sequences. Cars fly forward and backward through the air and time in a more thrilling way than playing with the rewind button on my old VCR did. More than just slick visuals, from the jarring gunshot that launches the movie to the score that often sounds like it’s being played in reverse, Tenet overloads the senses.
Time is difficult enough to grasp when it’s only moving forward. In Psalm 90, David ponders how 1,000 years past looks like yesterday to God and how our comparatively short lifespans are hard to endure. “So teach us to number our days,” he writes, “that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Tenet, as its palindromic name suggests, is always going in two directions at once, and many viewers will grow frustrated trying to unlock its puzzle. “Don’t try to understand it,” The Protagonist is told early on. “Feel it.” It’s advice for the viewer as well. Even with a twist ending that encourages us to go through it again, Tenet is an experience few will want to ... Repeat. (Warner Bros.)