As have many, the film industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, with small budget films being canceled, cinemas only recently opening and release dates for major films pushed back by studios. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet has increasingly been touted as the film that will change all of that—the film that will have people running back to their local cinema (with a mask on, of course).
Nolan as the messiah of the cinema industry, swooping in to resurrect the industry, in these trying times? It’s not crazy to suggest such. The director has an impressive track record and the marketing for Tenet has been second to none. Even before viewing it in my native London—and certainly, for those eagerly anticipating it elsewhere—it really has felt like that film.
John David Washington leads the cast as “The Protagonist,” a CIA spy who, having proved his worth and loyalty to the organization, is inducted into a faceless underground organization named Tenet.
The Protagonist, only named so in the end-credits, is placed on the trail of time-reversing bullets, leading him to a face-off with Russian oligarch Andrei Sator, played excellently by Kenneth Branagh, in a bid to avoid a cold war. “Nuclear holocaust?” asks Washington’s protagonist. But no—this is worse.
Tenet defiantly declares itself pretty early on as a film that is categorically not about time travel—instead, here we have time inversion. In a scene where she explains that the bullets work off “technology that can reverse an object’s entropy,” Clemence Poésy’s scientist Laura explains to The Protagonist, “don’t try to understand it.” Nolan seems to be saying the same, encouraging the audience to trust the film and just go with it., a Nolan motif, at this point
For all its talk of entropy and inversion, Tenet does find a balance between sci-fi film and Hollywood blockbuster. It’s high stakes and high budget —James Bond on steroids. Within the first hour, we’re greeted with explosions, high-speed car chases and bungee jumping, as we globetrot with the cast (quite literally—filming took place in Italy, India, Estonia, Norway, the UK and the US). But it’s not a Bond replica—though likely inspired by the classic series, Tenet manages to be a different kind of spy film. It’s refined excess, a fresh take on the spy genre, and fronts us with a fresh lead.
Calls for a Black James Bond have been floating around for years now, with multiple actors stating they’d love to take up the role. But what Nolan and John David Washington do here is run around the 007 playground with their own toys, without the pressure and obligation of history. Washington doesn’t miss a beat in Tenet. He’s not a playboy with a Martini glued to his hand, but instead, he toes the line between suave and assumed, remaining magnetic throughout the film with deadpan humor, slick outfits and a confidence that is compelling to watch.
Accordingly, the plea for a Black James Bond is basically answered here—in Clemence Poésy’s physicist Laura, we have a Q; in Robert Pattinson’s Neil, we have an ally; another 00 agent, of sorts, with whom Washington’s Protagonist forms a muted bromance with; Branagh’s Andrei Sator, a Russian arms dealer, is an archetypal villain. We have all the working parts—just run through a physics time-inverted machine at full speed, so fast it’s often hard to keep up.
But do try. Because even if you don’t completely understand it, it’s made clear throughout that that’s okay. Tenet is another letter of appreciation in Nolan’s love affair with time—from Inception, Memento and Interstellar, he again uses time not as a plot device or metaphor, but as the very crux of the film. The cast is brilliant, and the ambitious plot means it may not make sense to all viewers at any one given time but allowing yourself to bypass that and enjoy it is a decision you won’t regret.
Ore Abiona is a freelance journalist and content creator born in the U.K. and made by south London; a film and music enthusiast who’s always been rooting for everybody Black.