Note: Some light spoilers for Tenet follow, including a brief explanation of something hinted at by the trailers. If you've seen the film check out our Tenet ending explained piece.
There's a sequence at the start of 2010's Inception that explains everything you need to know to understand the rest of the film. It teaches you that extractors have the ability to enter dreams, to steal secrets. We also learn that it's possible to enter dreams within dreams. If you die in one dream layer, you'll wake up in layer above. We learn that these dream layers are crafted by an architect. A lot of detail is packed into one short heist, that equips you with the information needed to enjoy the following two hours.
In Tenet, the entire film is the equivalent of this section. You won't truly understand what's going on in this movie until it's over – and even then, you'll probably need to do a bit of additional reading.
Without getting too close to the core of the film's plot, Tenet is about time 'inversion' – that is, the notion of going backwards and forwards through time, using technology that allows you to switch direction. Tenet's trailers hinted at this by showing what happens if you fire a gun that's been 'inverted' – the bullet travels back into the chamber and the act is undone.
Really, though, this is just the tip of how the movie explores inverting time. I won't explain it in any more detail, because I'm sure you're reading this with the eventual intention of seeing the film.
All you need to know is that a Russian crime lord called Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) intends to use this technology to destroy the world – and the Protagonist (John David Washington) works for an organization called Tenet, which wants to stop him. All of this is wrapped in a Bond-infused action movie, albeit an extremely confusing one for much of its running time.
More confusing than Inception
The Protagonist teams up with another Tenet agent, Neil (Robert Pattinson), to stop Sator before he finalizes his doomsday plot. Washington and Pattinson's fun rapport is a highlight of the movie, and a part of the film that can be enjoyed without caveats, like the cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema (who worked on Interstellar and Ad Astra), and most of the excellent action scenes.
Tenet is a clever film in a lot of ways, but it's also extremely convoluted for a blockbuster that cost $200 million to make. It's hard to see mainstream audiences taking to it in the way they did with Inception – it's just a bit too confusing on a first watch to really connect in the way that Nolan's previous films have, and its core idea simply isn't as imaginative a hook as Inception's was.
When Nolan has played with the notion of time before – in Memento, for example, where events are told backwards, or in Interstellar, where relativity means the main character's children become older than he is – it's achieved with elegance. Every moving part is explained, in some form or another.
In Tenet, it's not until a chase sequence deep into the film that the core notion of 'inversion' starts to properly piece together. And that is a weakness of the film – it means the first act of the movie is filled with plot distractions, particularly those involving Elizabeth Debicki's character, Sator's mistreated wife.
All in the details
Nolan eventually pays everything off: but I would argue that large parts of Tenet are not satisfying to watch, simply because Nolan is putting pieces on the table without telling you enough about what's going on. It's not a matter of your intelligence as a viewer: the film is just withholding slightly too much information.
You have to absorb a lot of details before Tenet gives you the context needed to unravel it all – it's slightly too much hard work to make the film completely enjoyable on a first watch. In fact, I'd even argue that Nolan has deliberately created this film to be more satisfying on subsequent viewings, which is bold, but too much to ask from viewers.
Tenet is exciting is as a spin on James Bond tropes, though. It has fun riffing on the types of scenes you expect from a Bond movie: Q explaining his gadgets, M explaining the mission, meeting informants in dangerous surroundings – it even has a 'Bond girl', though by no means a traditional one. All of this stuff existing under the umbrella of a complex, stylish sci-fi movie is very cool. Between this and Inception, both of which feature riffs on On Her Majesty's Secret Service's final raid on Blofeld's mountain base, perhaps Nolan has finally got Bond out of his system.
It's impressive that Nolan is the only filmmaker who can summon a $200 million budget to make his grand spy-fi action movie – and he definitely uses that money to show you a few things you've never seen before on the big screen.
But whereas Nolan's other movies managed to be both prestige films and crowdpleasers at the same time, I'm not sure Tenet achieves that. You have to work slightly too hard to fully enjoy it.
Tenet is out now in the UK, and in selected cities in the US from September 3.