How do you write a story that’s just high-concept generational warfare without engaging with that premise beyond a single throwaway line? If you’re Christopher Nolan, you don’t. Tenet is a very competent blockbuster action film that read a couple of books on physics and is convinced that it’s smart now, but it fails to really engage with any of the themes that it raises outside of the usual time travel standby of determinism vs. free will.
The story follows The Protagonist (John David Washington), an unnamed CIA agent who succeeds at some nebulous test and is thrust into a demi-monde of secret agents and temporal schemes. His goal is, as usual, to prevent the end of the world, in this case the total reversal of the timestream and thus the annihilation of humanity. This leads him to investigate Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), with the assistance of fellow CIA asset Neil (Robert Pattinson), and Sator’s wife and art dealer (Elizabeth Debicki).
It’s a good cast, but they aren’t given a lot to do. Washington’s performance is excellent, channelling any number of Bonds into a straightforward action hero archetype. Robert Pattinson is the second in command, going from out-of-his-depth CIA asset to master heist planner as the story demands. Kenneth Branagh isn’t given much to do, his character is a fairly one-dimensional villain with dreams of grandeur. While ruthless enough to be a challenge for our protagonists he lacks the depth that a film like this demands, ending up as a stereotypical heavy who’s been given power and influence by forces beyond his control or comprehension.
The real loss is Elizabeth Debicki, who becomes a rote matriarch character, the fate of her son hanging over her head and defining her every move. We’ve seen her in this role as a kept woman before in 2016’s The Night Manager, but in the space of a feature film that depth is compressed and reduced to the point of parody. It’s easy to imagine a script where she had more room to breathe, but it’s hard to square that with Nolan’s mil-spec action ambitions.
It feels a little hard to fault Nolan in the end. The film was written and filmed pre-covid, so it’s hard to blame him for keeping up with the times as they are. But the fact remains that Tenet feels like a time travel movie for the one percent and for those who maintain a status quo that allows one. The stakes aren’t singular deaths, or even massacres. Not even a nuclear holocaust could spur the imagination of those in their New Zealand compounds. Nothing less than the eradication of Time would suffice. Those fighting against this eradication aren’t forced to interact with working people, but a shady conspiracy of intelligence agents, arms dealers and time travellers. A distraction can involve crashing a plane full of gold bars into a hangar even as The Protagonist makes some proletarian quips against British snobbery.
To spoil the main conflict, although I wouldn’t consider it a spoiler given that it’s revealed in exposition and given no dramatic weight, the story is triggered by people in the future sending technology back in time, which will eventually lead to the total destruction of the timeline as we know it. There’s no real elaboration beyond this, no motivation beyond vague gestures towards climate politics, and no end goal other than destruction. It’s an exceedingly reactionary viewpoint.
It takes to heart the idea that climate change is an act of generational warfare, the present lashing out at the future, but balks at the idea that the future could strike back. The same way that governments have allowed climate change to occur at the behest of corporations with nary a complaint, they penalise children from marching in protest. It’s the old suppressing the young, and even when the young come to power, they’ll still be at the mercy of the past if Nolan has anything to say about it.