Were someone to put together a thesis on the filmography of Christopher Nolan, it could probably be distilled down to three core principles: he loves to fuck with time, his protagonists reckon with some kind of tragedy, and, for some reason, one person in every movie he makes must have his hair. None of this is meant as a slight; Nolan’s crowd-pleasing, box-office-dominating work has made him one of the few filmmakers who can still reliably make massive blockbusters based on original conceits. And with Tenet, out in July 2020, it appears that Nolan is crossing everything off his usual checklist—by which I mean Robert Pattinson stole his hair and I have no idea what the hell is going on but I can’t wait to find out.
Please, watch this and tell me what you think is happening. It looks like John David Washington’s character is killed for refusing to give up his accomplices—he’s a spy of some sort—and then in the “afterlife” goes back to Earth and messes around with time while trying to prevent another world war. (Seems reasonable that dying would count as a tragic event in a protagonist’s life?) In this two-minute snippet, Tenet basically comes across like Michael Bay’s 6 Underground if the idea of elite operatives becoming “ghosts” who are off the grid was taken a little more literally—and also, instead of being made by a juvenile director with a fetish for blowing stuff up, the conceit was handled by one of the world’s most accomplished and highly respected auteurs.
“Don’t try to understand it,” a character says in a voice-over seemingly addressing Washington’s probably-dead spy, “feel it.” It’s a nice bit of metacommentary and perhaps the best way to appreciate Tenet for the time being. In order to retain the integrity of his (usually) twisty plots, Nolan is notoriously selective about what goes out in his trailers. That’s fine by me; I probably wouldn’t willingly swallow a cyanide capsule if he told me I’d get to join some kind of Time Squad in the afterlife, but he’s more than earned the right to keep his projects close to the vest and ask us to trust him.
I am very, very stoked for Tenet. Perhaps this is because I’ve just spent the past two weeks watching 6 Underground, one of the worst things I’ve seen all year, and The Rise of Skywalker, the work of the coward J.J. Abrams. (Not to mention reading all the incredibly disturbing reviews for Cats, which sounds like what awaits in the interdimensional hell portal from Event Horizon.) Nolan has some infamously intense fans who pop up in annoying ways online, regarding him the same way the very worst Rick and Morty fans insist you must have a “very high IQ” to get the cartoon—Rick Sanchez’s profound loneliness is not that deep, you guys—and that tends to hurt the director’s reputation by proxy.
But as Star Wars and Marvel have also established in the past few years, all fandoms have vocal minorities that are really annoying, act in bad faith, and at their worst harass people online. Some sections of Nolan’s base are like that, but let’s not hold them against him. The guy simply doesn’t make flops—even The Dark Knight Rises is fun on its own Bane-y terms, and I will always go to war for my emotional and misunderstood son, Interstellar. More often than not Nolan creates riveting, twisty films that are as fun to think about as they are to revisit. (Do not sleep on The Prestige!)
I don’t think there’s much else to glean from the Tenet trailer, other than that action sequences that happen in reverse like someone accidentally sat on a remote are a great addition to Nolan’s highlight reel. The movie was filmed in seven different countries and looks like the kind of global caper you rarely see these days outside of the James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises. Give me more vacation porn at the movies; give me more confusing time shit. Nolan is back, and Tenet looks like a promising extension of his crowd-pleasing sensibilities. You don’t have to pretend to know what’s going on or pretentiously insist you must have a very high IQ to get hyped about that.