Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ Offers Theaters Recovery

In the movie “Philadelphia” a character played by Denzel Washington says, “Explain this to me like I’m a two-year-old because there’s an element here I can’t get through my thick head.” He could very well be saying the same thing to his son John David Washington, the star of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.”

Of all the writer/directors making big budget action films Nolan is singularly the guy who makes his plots worthy of discussion over cappuccino as well as comments tossed off between mouthfuls of popcorn. “Tenet” is no exception.

This time travel thriller revolves around algorithms sent from the future that allow a secret organization to operate both forwards and backwards in time.

Fortunately at “Tenet’s” most crucial scene Nolan color-codes the back and forth with red and blue armbands. It’s not unlike Kurosawa having warring armies in “Ran” identified by similarly colored flags. In all honesty there’s an irrational pleasure derived from watching Nolan’s latest opus. You become so enraptured by the perfection of the imagery and sound that you forget you’re confused.

The texture of “Tenet” most closely resembles “Inception” right down to the score although instead of composer Hans Zimmer and cinematographer Wally Pfister Nolan utilizes the talents of Ludwig Göransson pulsating orchestrations and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s lensing.

It’s the actors who appear to be having the best time: Washington as The Protagonist, stoic in his determination to fulfill his mission; Kenneth Branagh as a cruel Russian oligarch who manipulates the time code to his advantage; Robert Pattinson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as unlikely allies united by a desire to save the world; and Elizabeth Debicki, herself more of a tall victim than a femme fatale. Michael Caine appears briefly giving Washington his marching orders as well as fashion tips.

Nolan excels at taking existing movie conventions and making them his own. For instance, there’s no liquid or drug that you dose on a cloth and apply to someone’s face that knocks a person out immediately yet you see that very device used in films all the time and a couple of times in “Tenet.”

Nolan doesn’t just knock out one person instantaneously but an entire opera house in the film’s opening scene that apes the 2002 Russian hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow. Other impressive set pieces are set on the open sea in a catamaran and at an airport involving a jetliner crash used to distract from a sophisticated art heist.

Likewise Nolan uses James Bond style design to his intrigues from international settings to character motivation. At one point Branagh takes off his belt and puts his cuff links in the belt’s notches to whip his wife, a scene that can be traced to Ian Fleming’s short story “Quantum of Solace” and which was used in the Timothy Dalton/Bond “Licence to Kill,” replacing the belt for an iguana tail.

‘Tenet’ has many ambitions among them to bring audiences back to cinemas during the Covid era. The movie originally set for an early summer release certainly has the skill set to attract a wide variety of viewers. If you pay close attention to the machinations of the script you will find that, in the end, “Tenet” is not so difficult to understand. What’s hard to fathom would be why more films don’t reach for the goal of being complex and also entertaining.

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