Armed with only one word – Tenet – and fighting for the survival of the entire world, the Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.
TENET is gloriously mind-bending bunkum, done with such conviction you really will believe your eyes. The sound is dodgy, I can’t work out if the science is terribly clever or entirely nonsensical, and Branagh is, well, a bit panto. But the dazzling spectacle, stunning score and mesmerising leading man more than make up for that.
Part stylish ’60s spy caper, part Terminator, and part Greek myth, in a movie where a weapon can effectively undo Creation, it feels fitting to start with an “in the beginning was the word”. The word was TENET, and the sign was two hands with fingers intertwined. This is all the information the Protagonist (John David Washington) is given.
Soon he’s being taught the basics of reverse entropy by Cleméncy Poésy’s scientist Barbara: objects travelling backwards in time, as bullets return from the wall in which they’re embedded to the gun he’s aiming. The reversing bullets aren’t all they’ve found; Barbara has drawers of this stuff, trickling back to the past, “detritus of a future war”.
The bullets are tracked back to arms dealer Priya (Dimple Kapadia) and then to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a very rich Anglo-Russian businessman.
The Protagonist’s way in to Sator is via his abused wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) who can’t leave him since she scammed him over a fake Goya. He has their young son Max, and there’s little room left in her heart besides her love for Max and her loathing of her husband.
The Protagonist’s slightly unbelievable commitment to Kat leads him and the urbane Neil (Robert Pattinson) to a slightly unbelievable plan to crash a plane into the Oslo Airport free port to steal the fake Goya.
Neil, who harks back to that 1960s vibe I mentioned, is the image of the English gent in exile: all flicky hair, daytime spirits and an expensive but sweat-crumpled cream suit. He also knows way more than he’s letting on, over and above his physics PhD, which he uses to dangle explanations over the Protagonist and us and then whip them away before we dig too closely into what is science and what is fiction.
It all leads back to a terrifying weapon called the Algorithm that can destroy literally everything. The Algorithm has been created in the future, then – its inventor devastated at what she has created, and fearful of being asked to build another – taken to the past, split into nine parts and hidden around the world, protected by Cerberus. Just kidding, they’re hidden in nine nuclear facilities. But you see what I mean about ancient myths, especially as the scientist who built it then returned to her present and killed herself.
Sator has been collecting these sections, for himself and at the behest of people in the future. For them ending it all is – paradox alert – their last chance of survival. He’s dying of pancreatic cancer, and when he dies his fitness tracker – which is actually a dead man’s switch – will trigger the algorithm to “reverse the entropy” on a massive scale, and that’s the world gone.
Yes, a fitness tracker: 10,000 steps, heart rate, hours of deep sleep, Armageddon. All I need to know is can it make tea? In an often po-faced film with so much at stake Andrei’s fitness tracker did make me laugh, along with the sometimes cheesy dialogue, and a particularly painful-looking bounce off the side of a boat near the very end, where – like a kind of release valve – the whole audience went “OOHHH!!!”
I say whole audience, there were five of us, that’s one per month of lockdown. This is of course a film to be watched after plotting a graph with the biggest screen possible against numbers of other patrons, until you get to a compromise you’re happy with. Though while watching it I did want to whizz into the future to when it comes out on digital, mainly to put the subtitles on. It’s not so much mumbly – there are plenty of cut-glass British accents – as indistinct.
It adds to the audience bafflement, and I actually found the first half most confusing; it plays like a standard, slightly incomprehensible thriller. Luckily the second half has some good old conversational explanations, the kind that make perfect sense until you come out and think the ideas through, and they crumble away: like dust in the wind, to borrow from another famous time traveller.
The second half is the most exciting and the most personal, as we see reverse entropy in action on a much bigger scale, and how everything fits together is, if not entirely explained, then alluded to.
Intriguing though it is to see a bullet jump from a wall back into the gun, the second half action is superb. The normal time / reverse-entrophy car chase, and the climactic last attack, are genuinely thrilling.
In that final battle, two teams of soldiers work to a “temporal pincer moment” with one team of solders going forward in time and the other going backwards, each using information the other has gained. Buildings collapse, reconstitute themselves and collapse again; smoke recedes to nothing. Moving through a bunker tunnel, the Protagonist and army commander Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), trying to get to the Algorithm before Sator’s death activates it, are saved by someone coming back from the future to sacrifice themselves. (Moving though it is, I couldn’t help but remember Bill and Ted and the handily-arriving wastepaper bin, dropping on Ted’s dad’s head while they remind themselves to go into the future and put it there.)
John David Washington is a perfect leading man with gallons of charisma. He’s a suave 1960s-style spy and a modern action star wrapped up in a smooth, dry wit. It’s a just about evenly-matched battle between him and Pattinson, who is suave but in a different way; Neil is a man who has been through so much he knows when not to speak and what not to say.
I did love Debicki as Kat, who is so overwhelmed with love for Max and loathing for Andrei that she’ll betray anyone and won’t even consider it betrayal, just a stepping stone. Her actions later on could potentially cause the end of everything, as she relies on the breezy belief that Neil and the Protagonist will sort something out in time.
Branagh is Branagh. Sator is a bizarre oligarch, whose actions only ring true if we ground them in the odd quirks of the very powerful. His back story is more interesting: he was a young man as the Soviet Union collapsed, living in a secret city that’s then ravaged by an exploding nuclear weapon. Searching for the lost plutonium in this radioactive hellhole he trades “time for money”, but it gets him out of there and puts him on the path to riches.
Ignore my 11 year old’s questionable statement that “the music in this is questionable,” as the score is top-notch even when it’s as head-hurting as the ideas. We were united in our four star ratings though, and our regular bafflement. A rewatch would risk becoming a “fill in the blanks” exercise, even though that’s probably an impossible task.
Read my article TENET: “what’s happened, happened”
Watch the final trailer now: