Writer/director Christopher Nolan has long been one of the staunchest advocates of the in-person theatrical experience. So it's fitting that the first blockbuster to open in theaters since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is Nolan's time-traveling spy adventure Tenet.
John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) plays a nameless spy recruited to stop a Russian oligarch (Kenneth Branagh) from using time-traveling technology for extremely sinister purposes.
It wouldn't be fair to reveal much more about the plot. Tenet's notion of time travel is different than most sci-fi films. In your average time travel movie, if you wanted to go from 2020 to 1985, you would step into a time machine and be instantaneously transported 35 years back in time. But in Tenet's world, you would literally have to travel backwards day-by-day to get to 1985. In other words, it would take you 35 years to make the journey.
All time travel movies have logical holes in them because time travel is, in all likelihood, impossible. However, Tenet's time travel of characters moving backwards through time interacting with characters moving forward through time will confuse many viewers. I could summarize the film and give everyone the gist of what happens from start to finish, but even I have questions that I can't answer. It's a denser, more convoluted film than even Nolan's 2010 Inception.
While some of the above is frustrating, I was fully entertained for Tenet's 150-minute running time. I was reminded in a way of The Big Sleep. In that classic detective film, even the screenwriters were confused as to who committed one of the murders (novelist Raymond Chandler claimed ignorance as well, possibly due to spite). However, the atmosphere and the action kept viewers engaged in the story. The same is true for Tenet. The action scenes are creative. Washington is a charismatic hero, and Robert Pattinson makes for an appealing sidekick. Michael Caine is funny in his one scene as a British spymaster. And in an era where so many filmmakers dumb things down for their audience, Nolan steadfastly refuses to do that. He believes viewers can follow a highly complex plot.
At the end of the day, Tenet is a movie that I admire more than love. It's distinctive enough that it will likely attract some devoted fans, but the confusing plot will also likely generate a backlash among other viewers. Still, it's refreshing to see a filmmaker take risks in a Hollywood blockbuster setting.