“Tenet,” the eagerly awaited new action film from acclaimed writer-director Christopher Nolan, is provocative and visually arresting, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Oh, maybe you could follow what is happening if you wrote it all down on a flow chart with circles and arrows and multiple colored inks, but it wouldn’t be worth the effort — and that’s hard to do in a dark movie theater.
And even if you could do that, it’s unlikely the story would make sense.
It’s difficult to tell, though, because great swaths of the film are afflicted with muddied sound, rendering the dialogue unintelligible. We know the characters are speaking because we can see their mouths moving, but what they say is frequently obliterated by punishingly loud sound effects or muffled by the masks they wear or whisper-muttered in tones that are too quiet to be heard.
From the parts of the film that we can follow, we can determine this: The movie is divided into two sections. One is a globetrotting action film, following the characters from one glamorous international locale to another as they wear exquisite clothes and drop the occasional wisecrack while cleverly extricating themselves from one dangerous and very loud situation after another.
The second part is science fiction. Because the picture is written and directed by Nolan (“Memento,” “Inception,” “Dunkirk”), you can bet the sci-fi gimmick has something to do with time. And so it has: If you mixed together a cup of “The Terminator,” two tablespoons of “Back to the Future” and a dash of “La Jetée,” you’d pretty much have the second half of “Tenet.”
John David Washington, who was so effective in “BlacKkKlansman,” plays an unnamed agent presumably with the CIA who is sent on a mission to prevent World War III. He is given no information about the potential conflict except a hand gesture, which is only seen once in the rest of the film, and the code word “tenet,” which has no narrative meaning for the story and was apparently chosen because it is a palindrome.
A series of talented actors (Martin Donovan! Michael Caine! Clémence Poésy!) unload great reams of exposition that confuse more than clarify, but the whole story eventually boils down to this: Our protagonist has to find a chunky metal thing that turns out to be the physical manifestation of an algorithm that, when activated, can destroy the world.
In other words, Nolan doesn’t know what an algorithm is, and he trusts that the audience doesn’t, either. But it sounds magical enough to serve as what Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin, a device that drives the plot no matter how nonsensical.
“Don’t try to understand it,” Poésy’s character tells our hero, and it is good advice for the audience, too.
Kenneth Branagh has a wonderful time hamming it up as a ruthless, Russian-accented villain, and Elizabeth Debicki is luminous and vulnerable as his often-in-distress wife. Robert Pattinson appealingly smirks his way through his role as some sort of English intelligence agent, probably.
Meanwhile, Washington is perfectly fine as our hero, and if he fails to provide any indication of the man’s character, it is more the fault of the emotionally frigid screenplay than his own.
What filmmaker Nolan does best in this picture is to propel us relentlessly forward as we pinball from one action-filled sequence to the next. He puts us in fast-moving cars and on trucks, in airplanes, speedboats and yachts. One important conversation takes place on a catamaran, though it could just as easily be held in an ice cream parlor or at an Elks convention or in a bookstore.
The downside to the bookstore scenario, of course, is that in a bookstore you’d be able to hear what the characters were saying.
In theaters Sept. 3.
What “Tenet” • Two stars out of four • Run time 2:30 • Rating PG-13 • Content Intense sequences of violence and action, some suggestive references and brief strong language.
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