A further complication for those deciding if they feel safe returning to movie theaters for Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “Tenet”: Like many of his movies, you probably need to see this one twice.
With a ridiculously complicated scavenger hunt of a plot, multiple villains and a globe-hopping narrative that journeys to half a dozen countries, “Tenet” is like a James Bond movie, except less coherent (“For Your Confusion Only”?). John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) plays a nameless spy who learns of a force that can make small chunks of time move backward and who intends to use it to stop a megalomaniac (Kenneth Branagh) from destroying the world.
“This is about survival,” a shadowy figure says (there are a lot of shadowy figures and whispery voices in “Tenet”). “Whose?” asks Washington. “Everyone’s.”
That sounds straightforward, but Nolan, who wrote and directed, gums it up by sending Washington all over Europe in search of things we don’t know the significance of and engaging in cryptic conversations with characters we haven’t met, played by Michael Caine, Dimple Kapadia and others. Driving home from the movie, I already couldn’t remember the deal with a Goya sketch that seems very important for about 15 minutes of “Tenet.”
I’m sure it’ll be more clear if I see it again. I’ve enjoyed every one of Nolan’s movies, and in most cases, I’ve liked them even more the second time around.
There is much to admire here: Washington, whose willingness to show the occasional emotion gives “Tenet” rare moments of levity. The relentless way Nolan uses Elizabeth Debicki’s height to diminish all of the men (she’s 6 feet 3 but in stilettos for almost the whole film, playing Branagh’s wife). The chilly, steel-gray look of it all. The bombastic, rumbly-tympani score, which sounds like Nolan’s go-to composer Hans Zimmer, but is in fact Ludwig Göransson (“Black Panther”). The skill with which Nolan stages individual scenes, such as the commando raid that opens the movie and seems to taunt our current need to avoid people, because it takes place in a crowded concert hall.
I wish those elements worked in service of a plot or characters we could care about. We know little or nothing about any of the people, although Robert Pattinson, as a colleague of Washington’s called Neil, at least gets a name. Nolan seems to think we’ll be engaged by the elegant surfaces of “Tenet” and the what-are-they-trying-to-get-their-hands-on-now plotting, but the crisply choreographed car chases and escapes feel like attempts to distract us from the movie’s empty core.
At the end, when it becomes clear that we were supposed to be emotionally invested in Debicki’s kid, whom we’ve only briefly glimpsed, it starts to feel arrogant, like we’ll care about what’s happening on screen simply because Nolan has ordered us to.
He even tells us how to watch the movie. Early on, Clémence Poésy appears as some sort of scientist who advises our hero, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” She’s talking about the backward-time stuff but she could just as easily be urging us not to worry if we’re unsure whom a character is or what country we’re in.
Fair enough, but I related even more to something Pattinson says at the conclusion of this handsomely made but confounding movie: “Does your head hurt yet?”