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Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite living filmmakers. Tenet is Nolan’s new sci-fi espionage thriller, highly imaginative and visually striking. Tenet was filmed on locations in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, and the UK, and its cast includes Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh.

But Tenet is not Nolan’s best work, for two main reasons. First, to say the plot is hard to follow would be a compliment. Second, John David Washington, who plays the Protagonist, is the weakest leading man in any Nolan film.

Nolan is known for plots that are complex and intricately structured, often employing science fiction elements that strain plausibility. Just think of Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. Even Dunkirk, which is a relatively straightforward World War II movie, has a highly complex narrative structure, with three parallel plotlines that only sync up in the last minutes of the film.

Memento, Inception, and Interstellar arguably cross the line into being simply incoherent. But there’s no argument about Tenet. On first viewing, large chunks of the plot make no sense, and I suspect that repeated viewings won’t iron out the wrinkles. What is worse, in the case of Memento, Inception, and Interstellar, the characters and drama are so compelling that one can forgive the occasional lapse, but not so with Tenet.

The central science fiction element of Tenet is time travel. People from the future are trying to change the past, i.e., our present. But the novel wrinkle is that certain objects can move backwards against the regular course of time. It starts out seeming fake and dumb, but as the movie progresses, there is a real payoff with brilliantly imaginative reversal sequences, in which people encounter themselves emerging from the future and interacting with them in reverse time. The word tenet is a palindrome, spelled the same way forwards and backwards, which is a nice metaphor for the characters undergoing temporal inversions. These mind-blowing sequences are structured with the intricacy of Escher’s most paradoxical drawings. They’ll leave you simply speechless. They might even make sense, after three or four viewings.

But the most inscrutable plot elements in Tenet are the motives of the main characters: the good guy, known only as the Protagonist, played by John David Washington; the bad guy, Andrei Sator, an evil Russian oligarch played by Kenneth Branagh; the femme fatale, Kat, his estranged wife, played by the elegant Elizabeth Debicki; and the mysterious people from the future, who set everything in motion.

It is no spoiler to say that the movie is a conflict between people who want to destroy and save the world. Early on, there’s talk of a Third World War, but that gets dropped for something much worse. This much is clear in the trailers. But given this conflict, none of the characters behave rationally. The plan of the people from the future is staggeringly evil and utterly insane, since it would not only fail to solve their alleged problem but make their very existence impossible. Andrei Sator’s behavior toward his wife, his son, and the whole planet makes no sense either. Kat’s behavior is baffling, especially when she commits a pointless and unnecessary act of spite that might literally destroy the world. And given the gravity of the Protagonist’s mission, his sentimentality toward Kat makes no sense either. There are half-a-dozen points when a sensible agent would have abandoned her to pursue the greater good.

The only weak link in the cast is leading man John David Washington. I confess that current events in the US have given me a powerful case of Negro fatigue, but I tried to be objective. There are fine black actors out there, and Nolan has cast two of them, Morgan Freeman and David Gyasi. But John David Washington is not leading man material. He’s shortish. He lacks charisma and physical presence. His voice is weak. He’s not handsome. (He’s very dark, but also oddly racially indeterminate, with a thin nose and odd beard that make him look South Asian.) Beyond that, he didn’t really sell the character or his lines. He can’t do sophisticated. We are supposed to think he can glance in a bag and see that a sketch is by Goya. When he dresses up, he looks comical, like a pygmy oligarch. He orders “expresso.” He’s the weakest character in any scene he’s in—and he’s in most of them—sucking in the rest of the movie around him like a black hole. I wonder if Nolan felt pressure from the industry to take on a black leading man. If so, he should have resisted. John David Washington is an affirmative action candidate, who has risen to his level of incompetence based on race and family connections. His father is Denzel Washington, who might have done this role justice 30 years ago. (He was excellent in Malcolm X.)

As the movie wore on (it is two-and-a-half hours), I started mentally recasting the main role. The actor would have to be physically commanding and dynamic plus soulful to sell his strange attachment to Kat. Daniel Craig could have done it a decade ago. Tom Hardy is the right age and would have been a compelling choice. Based on his performance in Blade Runner 2049, Ryan Gosling also would have been excellent. But it was not to be. There is one bright side, though. This is a James Bond-style role, and if the folks at Eon Productions see this, there will never be a black James Bond.

Speaking of Bond, now that Daniel Craig is retiring, Eon needs to hire Nolan to direct Tom Hardy as the next James Bond.

If I were grading Tenet, I would give it a B+ overall, with plenty of honorable mentions for technical details. Every Nolan fan will want to see Tenet, but average moviegoers will find it long, confusing, and dramatically uninvolving. Thus I doubt Tenet will be as successful as Nolan’s recent string of blockbusters. Indeed, Tenet is my candidate for Nolan’s worst film—or perhaps I should say his “least good” one. Tenet is a far more ambitious project than his early films like Following, Memento, and Insomnia. It is also more ambitious than The Prestige, which many people find dramatically underwhelming. But in terms of plot and performances, all of these films are better realized than Tenet. Christopher Nolan remains one of our most visionary filmmakers, but in this case his reach exceeded his grasp.

• Category: Arts/Letters • Tags: Hollywood, Movies, Science Fiction 
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  1. I didn’t read all the plot details to avoid spoilers, but the idea of characters encountering themselves from other timelines would seem to derive from the last avengers movie with the “quantum world” idea. Remember how they would see themselves or close associates? That was the most moving part of that film.

    Remember the original Superman movie from the 80s, when he flies around the world and reverses time? The scientific basis for that idea is that when something exceeds the speed of light, which is an unalterable constant, supposedly the objects move back in time. Supposedly when electrons near the speed of light, the can quantum mechanically tunnel past the speed of light and move backward in time. They become positrons.

  2. I kinda got the idea from the trailer. World War 3 is about to happen, and it will happen backwards. We know it is about to happen, because we have some magic tech to identify the rubble we keep finding. Once we identify the rubble, we have to work out where it belongs so we can have the big action scenes to turn the rubble back into whole buildings. What I don’t get is where the tension comes from. If random rubble reassembles itself into a better future, why would we want to stop it? It would be easier to simply drag corpses into war zones and watch them restored to life when the bullets are dragged out of them.

    • Replies: @anon
  3. @Happy Tapir

    I just went full geek on you guys.

    • Replies: @Fluesterwitz
  4. meamjojo says:

    I’m currently reading a book of short stories focused on time travel titled “The Mammoth Book Of Time Travel”. The book is from 2013, so should be available in many libraries.

    There are some really good stories in this collection that make you think hard about time travel paradoxes.

    • Thanks: Kent Nationalist
  5. @Happy Tapir

    No one expects the Department of Temporal Investigations.

  6. @Happy Tapir

    Thing is if you go faster than light, you just catch up to light that left before you. So you can see the Earth in the past but can’t be there.

    Travel back in time requires a universal, deterministic time, so in a Multiverse QM interpretation, or a Bohm interpretation it would be plausible.

    But relational QM – the only one without an EPR problem – only has time as a property built from relations between quanta.

    Why would an object travelling faster than light reverse the time arrow for every quanta in the universe, even if they are separated by massive non local distances? It just doesn’t make sense, unless you pose realism, and between locality and realism, one is a well established scientific principle, the other an ancient philosophical/theological hope.

    These two aren’t too technical and can be logically followed.

    I find Nolan’s films unnecessarily complex. It’s like he’s trying to out Rashoumon Rashoumon. Memento was cool though!

    • Agree: Happy Tapir
  7. eggplant says:

    As soon as I saw the Token Black Leading Man with the lost and stupid expression on his face I knew this was going to be a disappointment.
    Also, Kenneth Branagh is an appalling actor who virtually destroys any movie he is in singlehandedly thanks to his dreadful accents and ham acting. If he has a willing accomplice with the Token BLM then that really makes for a clunker.

    • Agree: Ian Smith
  8. Talha says:

    Denzel Washington…was excellent in Malcolm X.

    Phenomenal. He nailed that role.


  9. The complexity of the time travel described in this review reminds me of “Primer”, perhaps one of the most mind-blowing time travel movies ever made. Made on a budget of something like \$10k, it eschews effects for plot and characters. And everyone gets lost about 2/3 of the way through it. There are movie nerds who have made up what looks like computer program flowcharts to describe all the different time loops in this film.

    • Replies: @Jus' Sayin'...
  10. Speaking of Bond, now that Daniel Craig is retiring, Eon needs to hire Nolan to direct Tom Hardy as the next James Bond.

    That is the plan! Replace one unwatchable charisma black hole with another. Nolan would make a great 007 director, but Hardy can play nothing but a mumbling thug.

    • Replies: @Jefferson Temple
  11. As far as a new James Bond, my vote goes to Jack Bannon. Bannon stars in a pay service series as a young Alfred Pennyworth, future butler to the Wayne family. Put 40 pounds of beef on him and he would be right in there. Pennyworth, check it out. Alfred is an ass kicker. Who’d a thunk it?

  12. songbird says:

    I refuse to watch anything with a black protagonist set in Europe – it’s too explicitly political, given today’s context. If it were the ’80s, maybe we could delude ourselves – not anymore.

    They should set it in Africa, and see if the Chinese like looking at garbage-strewn streets, tin-roofed slums, and yellow-eyed extras.

    • Agree: Jus' Sayin'...
    • Replies: @Jus' Sayin'...
    , @Anonymous
  13. Tenet is about belief. The main character is not conscious in what he does, yet his deeper self is looking out for him. Time doesn’t exist to his deeper self, only the present. There’s no point in trying to rationalise or moralise it all, what happens is what happens and that is that; much like life. Be in touch with your spirit, act in accordance with it, possess plentitude and be the true protagonist of your own world. You are complete, a part of existence and exactly where you need to be. Such is freedom. Surrender.

    If you watch it in this state of awareness it is a truly satisfying film.

    • Replies: @Franz
  14. @Chris Mallory

    You should watch Legend. Hardy plays two thugs, but does not mumble. Also good in the leading role on the TV series Taboo. And in The Drop, also not mumbling. I agree that he should pick more roles where he isn’t a criminal.

  15. neutral says:

    I generally enjoy time travel stories, but I am not going to bother with this black leading man nonsense. Hollywood is now just an anti white propaganda factory.

  16. dimples says:

    Elizabeth Debicki elegant? Yech, no thanks, a vomit inducing creature on a par with Cate Blanchette. Also have Black! fatigue. Will miss.

  17. Mike Tre says:

    Well, at least Nolan wasn’t concerned about selling the movie in China. But yeah, having a negro in the lead for a time travel movie is a bad idea. Everyone knows, whether they realize it or not, negroes can only take us back in time, not forward. Kenosha is the latest example of this.

  18. Elizabeth Debicki elegant? Yech, no thanks, a vomit inducing creature…

    This is a link to a picture of Ms. Debicki (on the right). I’ll let others determine your credibility to judge female beauty, within that context.

    • Replies: @EL PMIS
  19. Tusk says:

    I have to completely disagree with the notion that the “plot is hard to follow…[and]makes no sense” and I’m confused as to why people think this. I understand Nolan’s films can be confusing but honestly this was on the lower end of the spectrum and even my girlfriend (who usually finds more complex movies confusing) came out of the theatres understanding it. I rarely like to rewatch movies but as soon as I finished I was ready to see it again. Nolan is the master of the spectacle which made this all the more interesting.

    • Replies: @Denis
  20. Clyde says:

    I plan to see Tenet but I have seen other movies where the plot line is incoherent. My guess is the Tenet plot started off coherent but when it came to filming Tenet and then post-production, Christopher Nolan could not resist dropping in here and there, the very nice and slick scenes he banked, because it felt right. That these scenes would engage the movie goer and help create positive buzz for this movie. Coherent plot lines are not a must these days, especially for the younger crowd with shorter attention spans. Blame internet and smart phones for the sort attention spans.

    For a visually slick movie with good action and good special effects, the director can get away with making a movie that you and I cannot figure out. A movie that is a series of scenes without much coherency.
    Nolan’s Inception was a head scratcher. What was that movie about? But it had a great look, was very slick and visual, so it was a money maker.

  21. @EL PMIS

    The one that doesn’t look like a dog faced pony soldier. (H/T Dementia Joe)

  22. @Happy Tapir

    Ah yes,this nonsense again. In a paper I presented to the British Society of Clever Gentlemen,I completely demolished this jibber jabber.. I proved beyond doubt that the stamafranization of the octo-microontological Cranbrook is inversely correlated to the reverse of the sum of the cosine of the neurological bifurcatioistic reanimatory obligado krellnock. So no more of this silliness.

    • Replies: @duncsbaby
  23. I enjoyed the film, but it was lacking.

    1, as noted, Washington lacks the gravitas and charisma for the role. His character is just along for the ride, an empty vessel. An allegedly tough CIA operative easily manipulated by a woman?????

    2, Debicki was supposed to provide the emotional hitch, but it just isn’t there. Poor noblewoman who married a Russian oligarch and is surprised he treats her poorly? I wanted The Protagonists to kill her off multiple times. She’s not worth any sacrifice.

    3, I fault Nolan not having his brother as co-writer. His brother is doing his own thing these days, but it seems why the movie is lacking the necessary human vitality. The plot was rather simple James Bond rip off plus weird time thingy.

    4, sound editing was just off.

    I still enjoyed it but it isn’t Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar, Dark Knight Rises, or Batman Begins, or even the Prestige. Beautiful movie, interesting concepts, well worth seeing on the big screen, but flawed.

  24. EdwardM says:

    Just saw it. I had no idea what was happening. It didn’t help that, like in all Nolan movies, the dialogue was drowned out by music.

    To the commentor about the leading lady, I will have to disagree, however. She looked great, sort of like a thinking man’s Gwyneth Paltrow.

    The worst part of the plot is the black character’s white-knighting to save the girl, which needlessly jeopardized his mission (which was merely to save the world from annihilation). I guess the payoff was perhaps that she was necessary to achieve the mission, but she really wasn’t.

  25. There is one bright side, though. This is a James Bond-style role, and if the folks at Eon Productions see this, there will never be a black James Bond.

    You’ve totally missed the point of this film’s casting.

    This pseudo-Bond negro protagonist is meant to be predictive programming for an eventual negro 007.

    It is also more ambitious than The Prestige, which many people find dramatically underwhelming.

    Recant your blasphemy, heretic.

  26. @Hapalong Cassidy

    this review reminds me of “Primer”

    A great movie. Serious fans of hard science fiction usually have no trouble figuring out the plot twists. But don’t take a woman who isn’t, whether wife, girlfriend, or new acquaintance. They will get annoyed and annoy you with their endless questions and complaints while the movie is runnung..

  27. @songbird

    Negros constitute about 12% of the US population. Those not in the utterly dysfunctional underclass probably constitute less than 4%. Hollywood is currently producing movies which feature Negros in grossly disproportionate numbers. Hollywood is also producing movies aimed to appeal to Negros, and turning off many Whites, in numbers disproportionate to any potential audience.

    This all seems to be part of a wide ranging plot by elements of the country’s establishment to demoralize the native-born, Christian, White population of this country in preparation for some type of globalist neo-feudalism.

    The best way to fight back is to boycott such Hollywood productions. If the money flow dries up, producing such movies will no longer be an option.

  28. anon[112] • Disclaimer says:
    @Fozzy Bear

    I think you’re smarter than the filmmakers. As far as I can tell, it’s not nearly a creative a story as your idea.

  29. Franz says:
    @Not Only Wrathful

    Time doesn’t exist to his deeper self, only the present.

    That makes me want to check it out.

    Reminds me of Anthony Peake’s argument in The Daemon, A Guide to Your Extraordinary Secret Self. The idea that there is a part of each of us that’s beyond time is old and Peake provides statistical proof. A movie even touching on that would be worth a look.

    Now I wait for a spoiler-filled review to this movie. The New Victorianism seems to be “No spoilers ever”. Balls. Old-time reviewers didn’t have any scruples about warning/informing people what they’re in for, especially if they thought the picture was crap. Never hurt ticket sales. Word has it spoilers helped sell Hitchcock movies so much he openly crabbed about them publicly and secretly egged them on. Too late to know for sure.

  30. Fun movie.

    • Thanks: Happy Tapir
    • Replies: @Bombercommand
  31. Ragno says:

    The problem with all time-travel stories is, even if you suspend rational disbelief, forward time travel – with no return trip available – is the only type that’s remotely plausible. Yet that’s generally the sort of time travel that audiences gravitate away from.

    Commercial sf, like all imaginative fiction, only catches on with the public if it speaks to some subconscious need or longing in that audience, whether by accident or design. Perhaps this was why IDIOCRACY, as hilarious as it was, also struck an uncomfortable chord in viewers: imagine how unbearable that movie would have been had it been played perfectly straight, with its comedy aspects involuntary gallows humor.

    Alas, we are not living even remotely through any sort of a golden age for sf. There IS an audience of billions out there who would enjoy nothing more than a clever and imaginative romp through a past that they, rightly or wrongly, view as comparatively far less regimented and neurotically-complicated than our own; unfortunately what they’re likely to get is an infantile, Tarantino-ized bloodbath where Woke Warriors undo race-iss history by killing as many of the right white folks as possible – with said plan quickly amended to just kill as many white people as possible, period, once things go awry (as they tend to do in such escapist pulp-fiction).

    But this is perhaps unavoidable when the vast majority of humans choose to view the past as a storehouse of treasured memories, while the few who now get greenlit by the Hollywood shapeshifters – who used to be far more like than unlike that audience – now view imaginative fiction as one more opportunity to punish that audience, and deliver Big Brother’s unvarying unimessage to the masses one more time.

    (Suffice it to say NObody has any interest in spending ten or twenty dollars to view an approximation of what’s coming, “the future” now taking its place alongside “death”, “taxes” and “Truth & Reconciliation Commissions” as Reasons To Pop More Opioids.)

    • Replies: @The Anti-Gnostic
  32. Denis says:

    I agree Tusk, this one wasn’t THAT confusing. I liked the way the central mechanic in the film was used. The overall concept was creative, and I appreciate that the movie didn’t underestimate the audience’s intelligence. I didn’t find Washington to be that bad either.

    I think that the role of the brooding leading man that usually dominates Nolan’s films went to the villain in Tenet, the Russian oligarch played by Branaugh. I thought his performance was excellent, and the writing and Branaugh’s acting combined to nail the elements needed for a powerful, memorable villain. Robert Pattison also delivered a great performance. He pulled the film up and turned out to be the emotional core. This almost seems to brush off on the protagonist, and his (the protagonists’) role in the film benefits from Pattison’s character and acting.

    If anything, the problem with the film is politics, a Russian villain trying to destroy the world while a black American hero tries to save it would be trite on a normal day, but these days it’s just pandering to the (perceived) LCD. Also, creating a fictionalized version of the Beslan school crisis to make Ukrainians the victims and Russians the perpetrators is quite distasteful, especially given the political climate.

    If, however, you’re willing to overlook the politics, Tenet is well worth your time. 4/5

  33. Now I know why Tyler Cowen is dry-humping this movie.

  34. @Ragno

    Remember when science fiction really was written by CIA agents and rocket scientists?

  35. duncsbaby says:
    @Arlo L. Ramsbottom

    Congrats, Arlo, you achieved something quite singular:

    Not many results contain bifurcatioistic.

    Search only for “bifurcatioistic”?

    Review: Tenet, by Trevor Lynch – The Unz Review
    Search domain
    Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite living filmmakers. Tenet is Nolan’s new sci-fi espionage thriller, highly imaginative and visually striking. Tenet was filmed on locations in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, and the UK, and its cast includes Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh. But Tenet is not Nolan’s best work, for two main reasons.

    No more results found for bifurcatioistic.

  36. Hardy and Nolan have done excellent work together. Hardy’s Bane was excellent in The Dark Knight Rises. And of course Dunkirk.

    But please don’t make him Bond, and don’t make Nolan direct. James Bond needs journeymen directors that the studios can just shove their ideas on, since Bond is just a bunch of silly tropes; artistic directors don’t work. And Hardy should play a Bond villain, not Bond. I’m envisioning a plot where MI6 is trying to find a mole in the service, and that turns out to be Hardy. Or Hardy’s playing an American drug kingpin with a pet tiger. He’s best as a ruffian, not a refined gentlemen as too many of Bond’s villains have become anyway.

    Anyway, Bond will probably be dead after this year’s “woke” Bond is released.

    Classic Bond was a snobby WW2 war hero with machismo, toughness, caviler sexual adventures, and a firm belief in natural order, with women in their place. Today that can’t be made, except “ironically” or if Bond is ultimately made a parody (as with the show Archer).

  37. Anonymous[178] • Disclaimer says:

    The UK (and France) have a black population just as much as the US does, so I don’t get why a film by a British director with a black lead actor set in Europe is necessarily any more political than if it was set in the US?

    • Replies: @GoRedWings!
  38. @Anonymous

    The UK (and France) have a black population just as much as the US does

    Not really.

    Understandably, Americans want to imagine the negro as a Western problem, but he’s really an American problem (i.e. Europe has much less negroes, both in absolute numbers and as a fraction of the populace – France’s main minority is North African, but not negro, UK’s main minorities are Irish, Eastern European, or Indian/ Pakistani)
    Also, negroes in France or the UK are recent Africans or West Indies, there is no white admixture and no Afro-French or Afro-British identity. Finally, Europe never had slavery, these people have all immigrated voluntarily, so there’s no white guilt.

  39. @Priss Factor

    Many thanks for that PF, Fukusaku Kenji was a rare genius film director. There is a sequel Black Rose Mansion, same actor in drag. I love it when Fukusaku does high camp. Natsuki Mari is fabulous as “Lady Tamzuza” in Legend Of The Eight Samurai an analogue to the Black Lizard, wacky outfits with capes and ruffs and over the top histrionics, “minions”, and her scenes with her son are priceless.

  40. @Denis

    I suggest you take another look at the film’s politics. Some questions to ask yourself:

    – The Russian villain got his start in life with some gold bars sent him from the future. Were there gold bars elsewhere in the film?
    – The Russian villain’s chosen method of suicide is a suicide pill that the audience knows is a fake. Apparently he doesn’t know. Where did he get this pill?
    – Who recruited the various members of the good guy’s team?
    – Why don’t we ever get any information about these mysterious villains from the future? Why don’t they send back any futuristic technology?
    – If time travel was invented in the future, then why are there time travel machines in the present?

    If it irritates you that I’m being coy, I’ll explain what I mean below.


    There is no future war, there are no omnicidal future villains, there is no chance of apocalypse. The film establishes that the black guy has been pulling strings from the near-future the entire time, even recruiting his own younger self into the conspiracy. The black guy works for the CIA, and his compatriots are in British intelligence. The entire operation, including the Russian villain, is a creation of American and British intelligence; the conflict is staged.

    I’m not sure precisely what the hell Nolan’s trying to say here, but we can at least see a skepticism regarding Russian villains.

    I might as well also point out that when we see the architectural drawings for the free port, it’s a five-sided building, and their break-in/heist/shenanigans are given cover by a plane crash into it – and we definitely see the wreckage of the plane!

  41. Anonymous[141] • Disclaimer says:

    I think the biggest issue with the film is that I didn’t care. And it’s not the fault of the lead (although yes he was flat) but the story.

    Didn’t care about the characters. Didn’t care about the puzzle. Just not drawn in. I’ve watched 22 minutes and am about to give up.

    It’s a typical Nolan overindulgence in James Bond scenes and too loud music. But even that would be OK, if I cared. And I just don’t. And I haven’t even hit the “confusion” yet.

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