Time May Not Exist Anymore, but Tenet Does, and It’s in Theaters Now
I won’t spoil Tenet for you. Honestly, I’m not sure if I could.
Instead, I will say this: Perhaps you have noticed that time seems to have no meaning. That days creep by, yet also seem to pass faster than ever before. That it is hard to remember anything from the old world, and that time and space seem increasingly to run together, and also against each other. As the summer went on, and Hollywood delayed its new releases over and over again, I found myself wondering: Is the new Christopher Nolan movie out? Would I ever? What if I’d seen it already? That sensation, that time is running forward and backward and sideways, that perhaps I am fighting myself in some elaborate but poorly explained conceit that means—oh goodness, oh goodness, that suit is sooo beauuuuuitful, BWAAAAAAAM—where was I? Ah yes. What it’s like to watch Tenet.
Despite the secrecy surrounding the film’s plot and premise, the film itself is maze-like and maddening, a time-bending labyrinth both intensely cerebral and intentionally confusing, a sensory experience, complete with a frantically pulverizing score that takes director Christopher Nolan’s signature BWWAAAAAAAMS to a new level. Nolan, whose obsession with temporal perception stretches back to his breakout feature, Memento, has made a ludicrously extravagant, precociously difficult, absurdly dense exploration of—of all things—palindromes. Somehow, it’s great.
The story follows an unnamed secret agent (a dapper and immensely charming John David Washington, listed only as the Protagonist) who, after responding selflessly to a terrorist attack, is recruited into a shadowy organization referred to only as Tenet. It’s not immediately clear what the organization is or what it does because Nolan is interested in immediate clarity in the same way he’s interested in character backstory: not at all.
But its activities are built around a distinct method: inversion, in which objects acquire reverse entropy, moving backward through time instead of forward, even as the rest of the world moves on. So a fired bullet might return to its chamber, and a car that flips over on the highway might flip back onto the road. Similarly, as the movie dutifully explains how all of this works, you might go to the bathroom, and then return to your seat.
The forward-backward reverse-parallel tracks of time become even more tangled once humans are involved, and plans and counterplans are hatched by the Tenet agents and their opponents, led by Kenneth Branagh’s s
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