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Christopher Nolan's Time-Bending Thriller 'Tenet' Reviewed


Hollywood has been saying for months that Christopher Nolan's time-bending thriller "Tenet" is the film that will bring audiences back to movie theaters. It has a title that's a palindrome, spelled the same in reverse, and a trailer suggesting the plot moves forward and backward, so the movie seems to provide a lot to think about. And critic Bob Mondello says now that most of the country can finally see "Tenet," they can argue about it, too.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: I thought they said "Tenet" was going to be complicated. I mean, come on. I'm no genius, and within the first five minutes, I could tell you exactly what - I'm kidding, I'm kidding. "Tenet" is so complicated I couldn't spoil this movie even if I wanted to.


KENNETH BRANAGH: (As Andrei Sator) All I have for you is a word - tenet.

MONDELLO: Technically it's an old-fashioned spy flick with a new-fashioned gimmick, as the protagonist, who's called The Protagonist, discovers when he arrives at a headquarters he may or may not have been to before and meets a woman who explains that she can't explain anything, but she can show him something. They go to a firing range where there's a pockmarked concrete target and a gun with an empty magazine.


CLEMENCE POESY: (As Barbara) Aim it, and pull the trigger.

MONDELLO: One of the pockmarks on the target seems to heal itself.


JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) Why does it feel so strange?

POESY: (As Barbara) You're not shooting the bullet. You're catching it.

MONDELLO: He opens the empty magazine, and sure enough, there's a bullet inside. And there appear to be other objects that also move backwards through time while the rest of us are moving forward - lots of them, a whole warehouse full.


WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) What do you think we're seeing?

POESY: (As Barbara) The detritus of a coming war.

MONDELLO: Ah, the light glimmers. These objects have been sent back from the future, maybe. This occurs to someone else, too.


ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Neil) Time travel.

WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) No - inversion.

MONDELLO: OK, back to square one. But remember I said "Tenet" was an old-fashioned spy flick? Well, that's something you can hang on to for dear life as the film globetrots...


WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) Well, try and keep up.

MONDELLO: ...To Mumbai and Russia, London and Ukraine for action sequences that are not, strictly speaking, sequential, but that are loud, pulse-pounding and thrill-packed, many of them involving what one character calls technology that can reverse an object's entropy.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Don't try to understand it. Feel it.

MONDELLO: Good advice for The Protagonist and for the viewer as we watch him dodging cars that are un-crashing on freeways. Writer-director Christopher Nolan may be dealing with concepts...


WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) This reversing the flow of time...

MONDELLO: ...That are reality-shredding.


WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) ...Doesn't us being here now mean it never happened?

MONDELLO: But he's a big believer in reality on-screen - no computer effects if he can manage an effect in-camera. So protagonist John David Washington and his co-star Robert Pattinson learned to un-throw punches and even talk backwards. And when the film goes for a big set piece...


WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) You want to crash a plane?

PATTINSON: (As Neil) Well, not from the air. Don't be so dramatic.

MONDELLO: ...The producers acquired an actual jet.


WASHINGTON: (As The Protagonist) Well, how big a plane?

PATTINSON: (As Neil) That part is a little dramatic.

MONDELLO: A 747 - because if you're going to do something in a Christopher Nolan film, you do it big and loud and possibly, when it comes to dialogue, not entirely comprehensibly, with people getting drowned out by explosions or Ludwig Goransson's seat-rocking score.

Now, in fairness to the dialogue, I saw "Tenet" under unusual circumstances - socially distanced and wearing a mask, like everyone will, with just six other critics in an IMAX auditorium that can seat almost 500. That's great for safety during a pandemic but may have mucked with the acoustics a bit. Still, Nolan wants "Tenet" seen in theaters. And presumably, his fans will want to see it in theaters - easy to see why. It is huge. And even when it doesn't make a huge amount of sense, it's frenetically entertaining, not to mention challenging - a bit like solving a Rubik's Cube and a physics paradox while doing gymnastics. After six months in lockdown, that might be just the ticket.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON'S "TENET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.