Bullets racing towards guns, not from them; dust explosions deflating back down into the solid earth. This, Tenet’s writer and director Christopher Nolan assures us, is time inversion. It is absolutely not time travel.
Nolan has been peculiarly insistent that Tenet, which is visually thrilling, superbly acted and emotionally empty, isn’t about time travel, but about inversion of the time stream, causing material to run backwards instead of forwards.
The thing is, Tenet is actually very much about time travel. Yes, there are backwards bullets and inverted fight scenes that are so inventively choreographed that they are basically impossible to describe, but people do also go back in time to try to change events to ward off some kind of third world war.
If that isn’t time travel, then what is? Saying that it isn’t seems to be Nolan’s way of telling us that this isn’t some kitsch flick for Back to The Future fans (and indeed, it isn’t), but a serious film grounded in theoretical physics. Reminiscent of the time dilation of Nolan’s 2014 grand space odyssey Interstellar, Tenet’s concept of inversion draws heavily on the idea that time reversal is technically possible.
For the first hour or so, this doesn’t matter much anyway, because until the midpoint Tenet is basically just a Bond film on steroids. John David Washington plays a secret agent named simply “The Protagonist”, who bungee-jumps off luxury apartments in Mumbai, orchestrates a 747 crash and attends exposition-heavy ballistics meetings with a physics whizz played by Clémence Poésy.
Poésy explains about those backwards bullets and the “detritus of a coming war” that she keeps finding and which has presumably been sent back in time from the future, before helpfully reassuring her confused audience, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” She doesn’t really look like she understands it all either.
The Protagonist joins forces with louche British spy Neil, played by Robert Pattinson, and together they set about disrupting the inevitably malign ambitions of Kenneth Branagh’s heavily accented Russian arms dealer, doing something with plutonium and absolutely not time travelling. They do go back to a previous moment in time through an inversion turnstile to help the arms dealer’s abused wife Kat played by Elizabeth Debicki. But that definitely isn’t time travel, just inverting time so that they are in the past. Totally different.
Tenet’s biggest issue isn’t actually that its “temporal pincer” plot (a temporal pincer is a… no, never mind) is a little heavy on the exposition and yet still head-spinningly difficult to understand. All that feels somewhat displaced by the rush of the car chases, the pounding score, the yachts and the stunning sets. As a blockbuster to reopen cinemas, Tenet is great fun.
Tenet’s problem is that it has no real heart. Nolan often tries to bend time to his will, but he usually does so with a narrative anchored in love. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s longing for his wife underscores the compression of time in the dreamworld; in Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey’s brief absence in space as his daughter ages decades in Earth years moves us beyond the spectacle and the science.
In Tenet, however, the emotional development seems secondary. The stakes, despite the coming apocalypse, never feel that high. Indeed, the most emotive moment of the whole film comes, oddly, from the arms dealer.
Tenet is slick, solid big screen entertainment, but it will not, as its characters ask repeatedly of each other, cause anyone to look at the world in a new way.