Do geese see God? Madam, in Eden, I'm Adam. A nut for a jar of tuna. Had enough palindromes yet? Nope, you haven't even begun to scratch the surface. Every one of those sentences, as well as the title of the movie, and the sentence I put in the title of this review after the title of the movie are palindromes - words or sentences that read the same forward and backward. The concept of palindromes applied in a temporal sense is the central tenet of Tenet, Christopher Nolan's latest time-and-mind-bending offering.
Simply put, the plot of Tenet can be summed up like every espionage thriller in a single line - a secret agent tries to save the world from annihilation by a megalomaniacal villain. But that's like saying Shakespeare's Hamlet is about a mad prince of Denmark who commits suicide. In Nolan's hands, the mundane becomes mesmerizing and the prosaic aspires to the profound. The movie begins with an audacious action set piece at the Kiev Opera House. The agent's (John David Washington) objective in the operation at the Opera is to retrieve an object, which he does, but then it is taken from him. That operation turns out to be the initiation rite for him into a secret organization called Tenet whose objective is to stop a Russian called Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from causing World War III. But this Armageddon is not of the usual nuclear kind. It leads him on a worldwide hunt taking him and us to India, Vietnam, Norway, Italy, Estonia and Russia. Helping him is another secretive man called Neil (Robert Pattinson). Neil gets him to an arms agent Priya (Dimple Kapadia). She gets him to Sator's wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) who supplied a painting by a man named Arepo to her husband. That painting is kept at a free port in Oslo protected by Rotas security. Revealing anything more would be a spoiler but to figure out why I bolded the 5 words I did, click here.
One normally doesn't come to see a Nolan film for the acting chops shown, though a DiCaprio in Inception or a Ledger in The Dark Knight are exceptionally good. In Tenet, Washington is adequate as the suave agent, but I don't think the Academy will be breaking down his doors anytime soon for this one. He was much better as undercover cop Ron Stallworth in BlacKkKlansman (2018). He needs to spend more time with his dad Denzel and pick up some tips from My Man. Dimple has aged like a fine wine and does her best in a cool role. Debicki has flashes of independence but is mostly a damsel in distress. Branagh is the stereotypical Russian with anger management and vodka issues. Pattinson is the one with strongest emotional connect to the audience, not something I would have expected from Edward of Twilight (2008) and the rest of its Saga brethren infamy.
At a running time of 2 hr 30 mins, Tenet does stretch one's own concept of time. To put it in absolute current, hot off the presses context, it is twice as long as India's disastrous collapse took in the unimaginable 36 all out in the second innings of the first Test against Australia at Adelaide, their lowest ever score in nearly 90 years of playing cricket since 1931. The action set pieces and car chases are thrilling, but for the first time going back all the way to Prestige (2006), and forward thru The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) to Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017), Nolan doesn't have his musical muse Hans Zimmer scoring the background music. That partnership has produced some of the most enjoyable and haunting music. Don't miss Hans Zimmer: Live in Prague if to get a ringside seat at the O2 Arena of this collaborative oeuvre.
Entropy is the measure of randomness or disorder in a system, and in all natural processes increases with time causing them to be irreversible. If that entropy of an object or system were to be inverted, that would make it appear to be moving backward in time to an observer in the natural universe. Once you buy into this basic conceit of the movie and its universe, concentrating on every action and technicality and stopping to think and check it for symmetry will be a distraction. If you are spending time watching a movie on time travel, you have already bought into its fiction. Like he did with the concept of dreams, and the ability to insert oneself into someone else's, in the magnificent Inception, Nolan in this one takes you into the colliding palindromic worlds of regular and inverted time. Just go with the flow, immerse yourself in it, and enjoy the ride. Don't fret over grandfather paradoxes (if you go back in time and kill your grandfather before he had children, you wouldn't be born, so then how were you alive to go back?). Don't worry about temporal pincer movements where an event is unfolding in forward and back ward time simultaneously. And don't question the basic tenet - because what happened, happened.
December 19, 2020