Poor Christopher Nolan. He desperately wanted to re-ignite a box office brought down to its knees by the pandemic and paid the price. At least in terms of his now damaged reputation as the only director working today who with his name/brand could release risky, original blockbusters to great financial and critical success. Under regular circumstances TENET probably would have ended up making another billion for Warner Bros. and Nolan. But circumstances weren’t normal. Rather than re-igniting the BO, the self-anointed savior of the theatrical industry ended up with the first flop of his career on his hands. Not only that: The reception was controversial, with as many people partying hard on the unadulterated Nolan-ness of this time-bending thriller, while others were finally done with his convoluted, gimmick-heavy storytelling. And then his own studio WB (or rather their parent company AT&T) went on to stab the theatrical experience in the back, making him break with them publicly.

Coincidentally, these headlines come as TENET is finally streaming for everyone unable to go see it in theaters during the summer. And since many people are seeing it for the first time as we’re heading for Christmas, it‘s once more hotly debated for its supposed qualities and shortcomings. Here’s my luke-warm take: Both camps are right. TENET is simultaneously great and terrible – fully delivering on the mindfuck front while also completely falling flat as an emotionally engaging story.

So, what‘s the story? TENET is about Protagonist (Washington) being drawn into a fight between secret organization Tenet and Anglo-Russian arms-dealing psychopath Sator (Branagh). Protagonist teams up with the Tenet boys (Pattinson, Caine, Taylor-Johnson) and uses Sator’s wife Kat (Debicki) to get to Sator and stop him from ending the world with some doomsday device. The catch: Both Tenet and Sator possess a technology allowing objects and even people to invert themselves so that they move backwards through time rather than forwards – which creates all kinds of strategic possibilities for the two factions to temporally outmaneuver each other.

The fun part of TENET is puzzling out the temporal shenanigans both factions engage in, and boy is there a lot to figure out. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to see the film twice to understand it if you pay attention and think a bit about it after the credits roll. 

There’s just one thing you really need to understand in order to decode the movie’s puzzle, and that’s how the inversion works. So a person can go forwards (naturally) or backwards (with the device) through time - but for that person, it’s all one straight chronology. For example: Protagonist can step into an inverter. Then for him everything else looks and moves backwards in real time. This also means that he exists twice now: One who is going backwards after he stepped into the inverter, and one who hasn’t yet stepped into the machine. If the two meet, both see each other as moving in reverse compared to themselves. This can be undone at any time by stepping into an inverter again, so that from then on, you are ‚in the past‘ but moving ‚forward‘ with everyone else again. The one rule is: You can’t touch your previous / future self or else… instant annihilation. This is the easy part.

What massively complicates things is that multiple persons are doing this multiple times during the story. At one point, there is a whopping four versions of one character acting within the same time frame after going in and out of the inverter at several times during the movie’s timeline. And I gotta say, figuring out the puzzle of which version of what character does what at different times was a joy. If you step back and look at the big picture, what with all its interweaving forwards/backwards timelines of different characters, it’s one hell of an impressive view.

In terms of puzzle structure, the movie makes surprisingly much sense despite being so abstract and densely layered. And that is a feat almost no other currently working filmmaker is able to pull off. Most other blockbuster stories are convoluted and contrived to the point of absurdity… 

The huge problem with TENET though: It feels just like that while you’re watching it. It’s only in hindsight that the film makes sense. It’s intellectually engaging to think about the puzzle. But I got no desire to rewatch the movie anytime soon. Because other than during the fun practical setpieces, the movie is excruciatingly dull while laying out its intricately crafted puzzle. It seems Nolan was so obsessed with figuring out this web of forwards/backwards timelines, he forgot that he also had to come up with a way to turn his high-concept stuff into an emotionally resonant journey. 

After a quick and tense action opening the movie goes on to have people stand and talk for one hour straight, and always strictly about the mysteries and mechanics of inversion and the device that allows for it. Whereas previous Nolan protagonists all went on their own, intense emotional journeys, Protagonist is an emotional void at the center of the movie. There is no life Protagonist leaves behind once he enters the strange world of Tenet and Sator. There is no desire or motivation he has beyond figuring out the puzzle before him - other than that the puzzle exists. On top of that Nolan directs Washington to be super-composed and cool throughout the entire movie. Protagonist doesn’t seem particularly surprised or wowed by that weird time jazz. And neither are the other characters, since most of them know about inversion already and seem to be used to the weirdness. Or even bored by it, like when at one point Pattinson is literally going to sleep during one bit of exposition. 

Imagine if Fay Wray shrugged rather than screamed at the sight of Kong – that’s how TENET feels like. Then again, Nolan probably thought that since Bond never needed all backstory or personal motivation, Protagonist could also do without. But it simply doesn’t work. Protagonist is decidedly not Bond. Bond is an indulgent character for the (male) audience to project themselves onto. He’s charming, witty, funny, sexy, potent, competent, perceptive, strategic, etc. He can fuck and kill without consequence and he gets a thrill out of doing and being all that. In short: Bond was designed to be FUN (whether that be politically correct fun or not). TENET’s Protagonist has none of that. Neither does he visibly enjoy himself at any point during the movie, nor does he seem to be afraid of anything. He isn’t amused or saddened or angered by anything. His one personal-ish desire is saving Kat from Sator’s wrath… because he likes her, I guess. It’s not clear how or why. It’s not a friendship but also not a romance. It’s just there. He wants to protect her, period.

And that’s just not very engaging, despite the rich puzzle stuff going on in the background. 

Defenders of TENET are of the opinion that the movie doesn’t need emotional ‚baggage‘ that would only water down a movie so ingeniously focused on its mindbending high-concept. I beg to differ since it is precisely because of their emotional depth that Nolan’s previous movies worked so well. The next best cousin to TENET is INCEPTION and the contrast between the ways these two movies operate couldn’t be more significant: INCEPTION makes a quick and highly effective case for why we should care for Cobb. The man desperately wants to get back to his children while being hunted by wordly forces as well as haunted by the vengeful dream-ghost of his dead wife, whose death may or may not have been partly his fault. That’s a great emotional setup, and the movie’s dream-travel gimmick and device directly relates to Cobb‘s desires - since, in the end, that very tech allows him to ‚get back to his children‘ (in another dream or in reality, depending on your reading). 

This goes for other Nolan movies as well. TDK has that emotional core too, what with Bruce being traumatized by "DarknessNoParents", acting out as Batman while realizing he’s destroying himself. Deep down he wants to hang up the cape and live a life with Rachel – but he’s a driven man and so the tragedy unfolds. Same with PRESTIGE, which is full of awe, wonder, and hope as well as loss, rage, and despair. Same with INTERSTELLAR and McConnaughey crying out his guts once he realizes he missed his kids‘ childhood in what was just a bunch of months to him.

With these movies Nolan managed to marry his beloved time-related high concepts with clearly drawn characters with relatable needs and desires. When he didn’t exactly care for that in DUNKIRK, it still kinda worked since the event depicted is in and of itself meaningful in a lot of ways. TENET isn’t. It’s about a man trying to solve a puzzle for no other reason than that the puzzle exists. And only once the movie is almost over, it reveals something of emotional consequence regarding the relationship between Protagonist and Neil (Pattinson). That’s way too little too late.

TENET could’ve been an all-around masterpiece. Turns out it’s one mindfuck-half of a masterpiece, with the other required half (living, breathing characters) curiously missing. It’s an impressively thought out puzzle that is way more fun to unlock later on than to actually sit through. 

One thing is certain: Nolan won’t stop it with the time shenanigans anytime soon. And he seems to be getting deeper into the ‚no character work required‘ phase of his career. I say: Why not go all in with the next one and make time itself the protagonist, who then needs to fend off all these annoying humans always trying to fuck up the order of things with their time devices. DEW IT!