There’s a point during Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited temporal blockbuster, in which a character bellows “Not clear! I repeat: Not clear!” It works as an excellent summary of the film. If Tenet is to ‘save cinema,’ as so many have beseeched of it, a good deal more quantum physicists are going to have to start buying tickets.
Tenet is difficult to understand. You get the feeling that, like a moody teenager, it may prefer it this way. It’s not easy to make a film that opens your mouth and furrows your brow to a greater extent than Inception, but Nolan has managed it with a film whose main theme is not dreams but time.
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Its opening scene, set in a packed opera house, immediately conjures a feeling of queasiness: a full theatre has never felt more foreign than in these unprecedented times. This sensation soon gives way to adrenaline, however, as the venue is besieged by gunmen, its audience gassed into unconsciousness. The sequence is gorgeously played and, other than the fact that its dialogue is often inaudible — a problem that ails the entire film — it bodes well for the 148 minutes to come.
Rescuing a man sitting in one of the boxes is a secret agent whose name we will never learn, played by John David Washington. After witnessing a phenomenon that makes little sense to his eyes, we are treated to a scene of such plodding exposition. You can’t help feel sorry for his co-star Clemence Poesy, a scientist tasked with delivering terminally bland lines and showing Washington that bullets can travel backwards in time, an observation that seems to have grave consequences for the human race. (As Poesy says, “Don’t try to understand it.”) The stage is set. Washington’s character has to prevent World War Three.
As he does so, which will involve stealing the technology from a Russian arms dealer, he is connected to Neil, a British handler whose dull name belies the twinkle-eyed charm with which Robert Pattinson plays him. The soon-to-be Batman is the film’s true star and Washington, faced not just with Pattinson but also Kenneth Branagh as the aforementioned billionaire arms dealer and Elizabeth Debicki as his unhappy wife, is sadly acted off the screen. (Incidentally, Hollywood needs to remember that they could hire Kenneth Branagh to keep doing foreign accents, but they could also hire some foreign actors.)