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Is Christopher Nolan’s Tenet the misunderstood masterpiece some claim it to be?

John David Washington wears a mask in a still from Tenet
John David Washington in Tenet Warner Bros. / Warner Bros.

At one point during Christopher Nolan’s convoluted science-fiction contraption Tenet, the conversation briefly turns from impenetrable temporal logistics — the shop talk of this bewildering spy movie — to a little anecdote about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. From the vantage of our present moment, it feels like an Easter egg sent backwards in time, like Nolan talking to his own future and teasing the giant phenomenon that was still, in 2020, a speck on the horizon. Of course, the truth is that the Father of the Atomic Bomb weighed heavily on the filmmaker’s mind five years ago, with one project blossoming in his imagination (à la the chemical theories of Oppie) as another came together. One might even see his latest blockbuster — his magnum opus,Oppenheimer, that’s on the verge of Oscar glory — as a phoenix rising from the ashes of his only failure.

That failure, commercial if not creative, comes with a big asterisk. Tenet is the only movie written and directed by Christopher Nolan that could be considered a box office disappointment, but there were rather significant extenuating circumstances. The film was an early pandemic release, arriving in multiplexes in September 2020, months before the vaccines made people more comfortable with the thought of returning to theaters. Nolan’s insistence that Tenet play on the big screen — a decision likely influenced by both his financial arrangement with Warner Bros. and his well-documented championing of the theatrical experience – was irresponsible for a variety of reasons. Setting aside any moral implications (was this the director’s own Oppenheimer moment, literally endangering the world with his vision?), there’s little arguing that putting the movie out during a global medical crisis was a gambit destined to backfire.

A man looks at a bullet hole through glass in Tenet.
Warner Bros.

Most of the world did not see Tenet on the big screen. This weekend, more peoplewill get the chance. Warner Bros. has arranged a kind of mulligan: an IMAX rerelease in the aftermath of Oppenheimer’s success. In more ways than one, this theatrical resurrection could prove illuminating. Fans of the film will get to experience it as intended. More than almost anything else Nolan has made, Tenet is spectacle for spectacle’s sake, an epic of surface pleasures, visual and sonic, that are calibrated for the canvas of a giant screen (even if the subtitles available at home are particularly useful for a movie that buries so much exposition under so much Dolby boom). The unconvinced, meanwhile, might gain a new perspective on the film — if not fresh admiration, perhaps a keener sense of its place in the sprawling event-movie timeline of a Hollywood hitmaker.

Now, as then, Tenet remains stubbornly and even perversely inscrutable. There are those who claim it is, in fact, very easy to follow. Their brains should be studied. The very concept of “inversion” — flipping the relationship between cause and effect — is hard to get your head around. And by the midway point, the movie has started bending backwards into itself in a way that mounts a basic challenge to moment-by-moment comprehension. This writer will confess to getting lost around the time the characters themselves start moving backwards through time. It’s as close as a $200 million movie has come, and will probably ever come, to the labyrinthian logic of Primer

Tenet 4K HDR IMAX | Reverse Fight

Nolan’s detractors have long accused his movies of being less complicated than everyone insists. Or at least less intelligent. “A dumb person’s idea of a smart movie” goes the most common charge. The conceptual audacity of Dunkirk and the genuine wealth of ideas in Oppenheimer punch inverted-bullet holes in that accusation, but hey, smart is as subjective as great. It’s more difficult to deny that Nolan’s movies are structurally ambitious and at least feign toward bigger existential interests than the average production of their budget and scale. Genius is in the eye of the beholder, but the cerebral aspirations are there.

In some respects, Tenet was a gift to the anti-Nolan crowd. It’s the movie the skeptics say he’s been making all along: a bombastic, emotionally remote popcorn entertainment that confuses pretzel-logic plotting for real complexity. Most of his films transcend the structural intricacy of their design in one way or the other. Tenet might be the closest he’s come to making a film that’s only structurally intricate, that revels in its palindromic architecture at the expense of everything else. It’s like an expensive illustration of the Oppenheimer lesson that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

Two men look at each other in Tenet.
Warner Bros.

The movie has also, unexpectedly, won over some Nolan agnostics. It has been reclaimed by the Michael Mann constituency, celebrated as a primo Dudes Rock movie. The suits, the gunplay, the existential dick swagger: That the movie does not “make sense” is, by some fans’ logic, no obstacle to appreciating its true pleasures. After all, Nolan essentially gives you permission to go with the flow, even as he paradoxically devotes most of his own creative energies to shifting around puzzle pieces. “Don’t try to understand, just feel it,” someone tells John David Washington’s “Protagonist,” but really the audience.

As a blast of pure, big-budget craft, Tenet mostly delivers, and especially on the big screen. It’s an off-brand 007 movie by an avowed James Bond enthusiast, from the in medias res opening to the timeless appreciation of the high life. The action is fluid and muscular and inventive, even when it feels a little derivative of the director’s past IMAX-scaled triumphs (the hallway battles of Inception, the big set-pieces of his Batman movies). And there’s fun in seeing Nolan throw a superficially clever sci-fi filter over the conventions of spy and heist thrillers — though the best examples of both tend to anchor themselves to less strictly functional characters, to ciphers with more personality.

TENET | Re-Release Trailer

Sandwiched between the affecting, nested wartime survival drama of Dunkirk and the scrambled historical-psychological investigations of Oppenheimer, Tenet can’t help but feel like a palate cleanser and maybe a flex. It was Nolan taking a victory lap, indulging his parallel appetites for twisty storytelling and money-is-no-object pyrotechnics. It’s easy to forget that he was once considered an inconsistent orchestrator of action, dinged for the spatial incoherence of those early Batman brawls. Tenet is the clapback, his shiny evidence to the contrary. It’s a blockbuster that feels like a monument to its own impressive construction, to the brains and the brawn of the man who made it.

And maybe it was the comparatively breezy summer movie Nolan had to get out of his system before he could throw himself into his heaviest, headiest, and most thoughtful project. The fission before the fusion, if you will. Not that these consecutive films — one a divisive box-office disappointment, the other a widely acclaimed cultural sensation — are really so different in the end. Beyond that one namecheck, the seeds of Oppenheimer are there in Tenet’s focus on cause and effect (however inverted) and a man caught in a chain reaction of his own making. Following this filmmaker’s racing train of thought is a singular pleasure of our running blockbuster age, especially in a darkened auditorium and even when you get hopelessly lost along the way.

Tenet is now playing on select IMAX screens. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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