If you’ve started reading this review against your better judgement, worried about spoilers, rest assured there is no cause for concern here. I could certainly divulge plot details—minor and major—but they would soon get lost in the shuffle. To say Tenet is heavily plotted would be an understatement. In the early stages especially, it is an expository quagmire, and it feels overwhelming. The convoluted narrative that Christopher Nolan weaves forms the primary weapon in his strategy, bombarding the audience with so much intricate detail that any bandwidth expended trying to make sense of it all becomes wasted effort—it’s an affront of obfuscation, and the divided attention of his crowd allows the magician to perform his trick unhindered, in plain sight.
The exposition is not just a deluge of detail for detail’s sake, though. Within it, Nolan provides instruction for the audience. Our protagonist is told early on in the piece, “don’t try to understand it, just feel it.” This piece of dialogue could be interpreted as a sheepish writer/director making a clumsy attempt to paper over the cracks, but this conversation acts as the key to understanding what exactly Tenet is, and this is something that, no matter how much detail is unveiled, won’t become apparent outside the fullness of a complete viewing. In this respect, Tenet is a palindrome in form as much as it is in title.
In the English language, natural palindromes are generally short and extemporaneous: eye, noon, rotor, civic, level, kayak etc. When extended beyond a singular word into a medley, they must be carefully constructed, and often lose logical or grammatical coherence in the making: Rats live on no evil star. Madam, I’m Adam. A man, a plan, a canal—Panama. There are concessions that must be made in order for the whole thing to work, and Tenet is not immune from this actuality. This is where a lack of coherence becomes forgivable, where understanding gives way to feeling, where the what begins to matter far less than the how.
It is in the how that Tenet excels. Nolan knows how to craft exhilarating set pieces, and, as we’ve seen in the most relative comparison from him, Inception, he is in a league of his own when tying the action to a high-concept premise. Here, the spectacle doesn’t look as immediately grand on paper, but it may be more impressive technically, particularly in how it affects and is affected by the narrative. Early patience is rewarded; exposition transitions to action, words turn to deeds, the what becomes the how. It’s filmmaking that plants you firmly on the edge of the seat, making you forget about trying to make actual sense of the damn thing, and it’s glorious whilst that feeling lasts.
This feeling is not impervious, however, and even if subdued, a state of perplexity will ever lie just under the surface. The completely fantastical concept of inversion is complex enough to wrap your head around, but the practical application takes the befuddlement to another level, and it becomes difficult to understand how successful the film is in maintaining its own logic. At times I found myself questioning whether the film was incredibly clever or incredibly dumb—and I still do not know. I eventually decided that, regardless, both possibilities can coexist, and more so came to understand that intelligibility was never Nolan’s primary aim. In approaching the film as a cinematic palindrome, I was able to relinquish some of my concerns and appreciate it for the structural marvel that it is.
To the blissfully ignorant, the difference between science and magic can be imperceptible. Once the ceiling of comprehension has been reached, that which lies beyond may as well be supernatural. Nolan’s greatest achievement in Tenet may be in how effectively he blurs the forward and backward lines and intersections that define the complex linearity of the piece—it’s constantly confounding, and reminds me of the time I reached the end of my academic tether studying advanced physics well beyond my grasp. In the case of Tenet, I suspect my bamboozlement is a result of carefully contrived parlour tricks rather than exact science. To Nolan’s credit, of which I am not yet sure.