'Cinema is Back!' proclaimed the advertising at the multiplex, finally open once again. If it's true, then it certainly feels like we owe this to one man: Christopher Nolan, now more than ever elevated to the status of a heroic figure – the hero we need right now, and perhaps better than we deserve. With Marvel, Disney, and the Bond franchise all running for cover, it is Nolan who has stepped up and taken the hit by insisting on a theatrical release for his new movie, the first major release since March. Is this the kick that will restore the fortunes of cinemas? Too early to say. What's certain is that the circumstances of Tenet's release would normally threaten to overshadow the substance of the movie, were it not so... well, extraordinary is the only word that springs to mind.
John David Washington is commandingly cool as the protagonist, who is known as the Protagonist (a slightly smug piece of knowingness, but much of a piece with the rest of the movie). Initially an operative with the CIA, when a mission goes wrong he finds himself initiated into an even more shadowy organisation with grand, existential concerns. He is sent off to meet Clemence Poesy, playing a sort of Basiletta Exposition character, who explains (if that's not too strong a word for it) that weapons and other items with negative entropy have begun to appear with increasing and worrying frequency. The Protagonist is quite understandably slightly baffled by this, but what it boils down to is objects travelling backwards through time, their causality inverted. Bullets obligingly jump out of the target into the Protagonist's gun when he is given the chance to try out some inverted-entropy gear for himself.
It seems that the forces in the future have declared war on the past and are using advanced technology to reverse the specific entropy of objects and project them backwards this way. The chief representative of these future forces is an arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, giving us his Bond villain), whom the Protagonist must get close to – which requires, first of all, for him to get close to Sator's wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki)...
Well, the first thing to say is that Nolan has either missed a trick or is being a bit perverse by not calling the new movie Inversion: it would suit the story perfectly and mean that those of us who keep our DVDs in alphabetical order could have a whole batch of Nolan movies all together. The second thing is to comment on the way that a lot of the publicity material is stressing the fact that Tenet is essentially a spy thriller, full of people in sharp suits effecting unusual entries into secure facilities, chasing each other around in cars, and swanking about on yachts in photogenic locales. All this is, of course, strictly speaking true – although suggestions that this is essentially Nolan auditioning for the job of Bond director seem to me to misjudge the power dynamic involved – and it does keep the form and structures of a spy movie pretty much intact, and indeed handles them in a way which is almost formal and stylised – the Protagonist and his chief sidekick Neil (Robert Pattinson) aren't so much fully-realised characters as charismatic collections of plot functions, and there is something stark and austere about the way the film proceeds from one grandiose set piece to the next, with a minimum of exposition.
What all of this overlooks, of course, is all the other stuff which the publicity people have decided not to make a big deal of in the trailer and so on, possibly to retain a sense of surprise, but more likely because they just couldn't make sense of it. Nolan-watchers are used to the director's penchant for films with bold and ambitious narrative conceits and transitions; there are plenty of those here, but what is a little unusual is that for once his sources are showing: what Nolan has basically done here is hit upon the slightly insane scheme of taking Mission: Impossible or a Bond film and mashing it up with Primer (Shane Carruth's baffling 2004 time-travel film): the closest equivalent I can think of would be Looper (on which Carruth apparently consulted).
Nevertheless, he makes it work, although the result is what initially feels like a ferociously convoluted and challenging narrative: no one gives such good boggle in such generous helping as Nolan. Characters proceed through events in the usual way, then have their entropy inverted and experience them again, in reverse: in a sense the film is largely building up to the moment when the Protagonist steps out into a world which, for him and the audience, is moving backwards, and the genuinely disconcerting sense of this is very well achieved. The narrative bends back on itself as slightly mystifying events from early in the film recur in reverse, from the point of view of inverted characters: there's a sense in which the structure of the whole film is palindromic.
Clemence Poesy gets in early with some dialogue about how it's more about how things intuitively feel than the hard logic of what's happening, which is sensible: negative-entropy bullets leave holes in a wall before (or until) they're fired, which seems reasonable until you consider that someone must therefore have built that wall with bullet-holes in it, mustn't they? Trying to keep track of this sort of thing while you're actually watching the film is impossible; I suspect it certainly passes the Primer test in terms of demanding a second or third viewing in order for any normal person to understand all the intricacies of the plot. Perhaps some of the storytelling is not quite as clear or clean or user-friendly as it might be – but you still can't help but be astonished at Nolan's ambition and cleverness in even conceiving of a narrative like this one, regardless of any slips in its execution.
Nevertheless, this is an almost entirely left-brained film (a fairly common and to some extent justified criticism of Christopher Nolan's movies): technically brilliant, but also lacking in some of the depth and heart of his very best work. The emotional element of the film, such as it is, mostly comes from Debicki's character, trapped in an abusive relationship for the sake of her son: it just about fills the hole which has been left for it, but still feels a bit perfunctory. The core of the film is made up of its ideas about causality and our perception of time, and there isn't really any space here for a more human metaphor, as there was in the dream-scapes of Inception.
I would not be surprised if Tenet turns out to be the year's most complex narrative, and also its most impressive action movie – we know that 2020 is weird, and here is the confirmation of that. It's a bit too spare and formal and cold, consumed by its own narrative folds and tricks, to really qualify as Nolan's best work, but it still delivers everything you expect from a film by this director: a remarkable experience, and a compelling reason to go back to the cinema.