From Christopher Nolan, who produced the exciting and mind-bending INCEPTION, TENET (2020) travels a similar path of complexity and action, but its sheer density and lack of character make it feel inaccessible, confusing, and chilly.
As for the plot, basically, it’s James Bond meets time travel. The future is engaging in a war against the past to reverse the flow of time and save themselves from a world dying from climate change, even if it means risking destroying humanity itself due to the Grandfather Paradox (you go back in time and kill your grandfather, so you never existed to do it in the first place). Enter the Protagonist, a CIA agent recruited into an organization fighting this time war.
Various objects are finding their way into the past from the future that are “inverted,” meaning they are traveling backward in time due to reverse entropy. Bullets fly into guns, explosions reassemble, etc. It’s all very cool, even if it doesn’t make much sense the more you think about it. As a scientist tells the Protagonist early on, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” For the viewer, this is very good advice. Anyway, the Protagonist must trace these inverted weapons and stop their owner from ending the world. What follows is a palindromic plot in which events flow forward and then backward and include battles in which people are fighting forward and backward in time.
TENET calls to mind THE DARK, a brilliant German TV series that examines an anomalous time loop created by the bootstrap paradox (e.g., a time traveler goes back in time and gives himself a book about how to do time travel, resulting in him learning how to do time travel in the first place). But where THE DARK has the time to stretch out and develop its ideas bit by bit as if building a working watch, and also develop its characters, TENET, despite its long runtime, doesn’t have these luxuries. Complicated exposition is dumped, sometimes with loud music or ambient noise obscuring it (I had to turn on subtitles a few times to follow the story). In some scenes, the rapid editing means missing key details if you blink. The plot rules the story, but it frequently changed with me feeling left behind. And then there’s a basic lack of character, which is probably the most notable flaw just as it is for me for most James Bond movies. The Protagonist is a blank slate in terms of his past, his personality, almost everything; he develops a quick, strong, and kinda inexplicable bond with the lead female protagonist and wants to protect her while saving the world, and that’s pretty much it.
The result is a strong James Bond kind of thriller that is stylish and with some action scenes that are absolutely thrilling to watch, particularly when people are inverted and have the advantage of knowing what has already happened so they can navigate events. The basic ideas are intriguing even if somewhat opaque to the point of being grating. This was close to being another INCEPTION, one of my favorite films. I probably would have enjoyed TENET far more if the concepts had been dumbed down a little more for movie watching, the plot had been more elegant, and the main character had been given stronger motivations, a character arc, personality, anything.
Anyway, see it for yourself. It’s certainly if not unique then highly distinctive among action films. I did enjoy it, despite what I saw as flaws. If nothing else, one has to admire its thought and ambition, along with its stylish, competent production and very clever visual scenes. I hope you’ll let me know what you thought.