Entropy increases. A fundamental tenet of the physical universe as described by the third law of thermodynamics, once an action has been taken to shift a system from a nominally ordered to a more chaotic state there is no simple way to reverse the release of energy to return it to its former arrangement. A gun, once fired, cannot recall the bullet any more than a broken window can reconstruct itself from the scattered shards.
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, his eleventh feature film Tenet is a culmination of the narrative and technical tools he has deployed throughout his career, the non-linear chronology of Memento, the sleight-of-hand of The Prestige, the audacious scope of Inception, the uncompromising complex science of Interstellar and the unflinching dedication of Dunkirk.
Told through the experiences of an unnamed agent (Monsters and Men‘s John David Washington) operating on a need to know basis, he is taken into the secret organisation Tenet and tasked with an impossible mission prompted by incredible evidence which indicates that a war is coming whose devastating effects can, on a local scale, reverse entropy.
A phenomenon called inversion, artefacts have been found around the world moving backwards through time; by determining their likely point of manufacture the agent may be able to gather sufficient intelligence to ascertain when and where the flashpoint may be and potentially alter the future – if it has not already become irrevocable, and if his own presence in events is not an unresolvable paradox.
With theoretical physicist Kip Thorne thanked in the credits, it is no surprise that Tenet can be challenging viewing, a science fiction thriller which runs breathlessly through one hundred and fifty minutes of action and necessarily dense explanation, more than Nolan usually graces his audience with, the characters themselves often only half comprehending what is unfolding – or refolding – before them.
A heist movie like none seen before, events witnessed in one direction are revisited in reverse with a different perspective, the disassociation of cause and effect dazzling the eye and vexing the brain, Nolan subverting the language of cinema in a film whose locations and sophistication rival the globetrotting glamour of Bond across London, Mumbai, Oslo, Tallinn and a luxury yacht moored off the coast of Vietnam.
Operating with momentum and a minimal ensemble, Kenneth Branagh is the ruthless arms dealer Andrei Sator and Elizabeth Debicki is characteristically frosty as his unloved trophy wife Kat, and while Robert Pattinson is nonchalant as handler Neil it is clear that Nolan regular Sir Michael Caine is delighted in his brief but scene-stealing cameo as a senior intelligence officer.
More involving than Dunkirk which often felt like a flawless demonstration of cinematic execution than a story waiting to be told, Tenet engages both intellectually and viscerally, unravelling ideas from Millennium, 12 Monkeys and the diaries of River Song and spinning them into what may be among Nolan’s best creations whose stunning visuals enhance rather than distract from the convolutions of the plot.
Tenet is currently on general release and also screening in IMAX