But that’s just the small stuff. The big question is whether it’s safe to go to the movies, and that depends where you are. Like all film fans, you may want to support cinema, and the movie industry has a lot riding on Tenet as the only remaining summer blockbuster with any chance of getting viewers back into desperate theaters. But even the most intricately choreographed action scene isn’t worth risking your health.
Tenet opens internationally Aug. 26, and in the US Sept. 3 (here’s how to avoid spoilers online). The good news is the movie is machine-crafted for watching in different formats. See it on the big screen and you’ll get an eyeful of the spectacle, or you can wait for streaming and TV to watch with the aid of subtitles. And a notebook. And several lengthy Reddit threads.
John David Washington is insanely watchable as he swaggers from one fight to the next, doing chin-ups dangling over sheer drops and going through more outfits than a model in an issue of Esquire. He’s the Black James Bond of this shadowy world, barely wrinkling his three-piece suit as he takes out bullet-headed Russian mercs with whatever kitchen implements come to hand. He’s not the guy they send to negotiate, but he is the guy they send to get things done and look good doing it.
Speaking of 007, the shadow of other superspies inevitably hangs over Tenet. A globetrotting adventure full of beautiful people doing ugly things, Tenet’s plot is built on the classic Bond film formula with a dash of Thunderball here, a flash of The Man With the Golden Gun there, a garnish of Skyfall on top. But Nolan carries it off with such verve, the real James Bond has a fight on his hands when he returns in November’s No Time to Die.
For any other director, Tenet might feel like an audition for the famous spy franchise, but Dr. No-lan doesn’t need to prove he can make a Bond film. Instead, he’s proven there’s nothing like a Christopher Nolan film. When it comes to smart and spectacular blockbusters with a sci-fi twist, nobody does it better. Which does mean Nolan has set a high bar for himself, and Tenet has to stretch to better the very similar Inception.
Yes, Tenet is pretty complicated. Even before things get all timey-wimey, you need to make an effort to keep track of what’s going on. The mission begins with a subplot about art forgery that mostly involves people sitting in dimly lit dining rooms, reeling off endless names and geopolitical complexities over their Michelin-starred meals. Call it lunchsposition. We never find out exactly what Michael Caine has ordered during his restaurant-based cameo, but as he chews over a barely comprehensible speech about secret Soviet cities, you realize it was probably the word salad.
Don’t worry if you don’t remember all the details, however. There’s a good guy and a bad guy and a woman caught between them, and a thing everyone wants to get before it destroys the world. The rest is just nice to look at. That’s kind of all it is, though.
The handsome cast may singe the screen with their star presence, but they don’t have much else to work with. The finely tailored outfits and gnomic one-liners don’t hide much depth, which is a problem as the run time ticks by and you’re stuck without much emotional connection to these people.
It’s a bit redundant at this point to point out Nolan’s lack of interest in depicting three-dimensional people when he can play around with flashy time changes instead, but that is Tenet’s biggest problem. Nolan’s tendency to create cinematic cyphers instead of characters came to a head in Dunkirk, in which he deliberately told us nothing about the characters and instead used his filmmaking skill to place you next to them in their horrifying situation. Those blank characters gave Dunkirk an element of “what would you do?” but that was a real-life war story; you don’t get that same viewer identification with a flashy action movie about tailored time travelers.