Tenet opens not with a bang, but with an explosion. Chaos coordinated with cinematic clarity courtesy Christopher Nolan. The setting is a concert hall—packed to the rafters with people. The orchestra tunes, the doors close, and the bad guys enter: terrorists armed with machine guns. They fire randomly, destroy instruments needlessly, and plant bombs around the room. Everyone cowers in fear. Outside the hall, armored and armed men select police badges from a stack. There are multiple stacks, and they are not police. They are after one man inside. We don’t know why, but we know that when our protagonist (John David Washington) finds the man, they speak in code.

But none of that matters: Not the man, the protagonist, or the terrorists. What matters is the chaos of gunshots—sporadic, piercing, deadly—and the homogeneity of the players. Everyone wears black riot gear with masks, and determining who’s who is difficult by design. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema’s shaky IMAX camera immerses viewers in the soup while Jennifer Lame’s rapid editing gives each cut a building sense of urgency far more dramatic than a ticking clock. Ludwig Göransson’s pulsating score reverberates through your flesh and throws your heartbeat out of rhythm. The explosions are so loud, you feel the vibrations in the chair, and your stomach starts to tumble. It’s like being on a rollercoaster, but without the security of the lap bar.

And in another year, all of this would seem passé—better than run-of-the-mill, but still familiar. But in 2021, after a year spent watching movies on the couch, the bombast of the IMAX image and the thumping surround sound doesn’t just drive you deep into your seat, it transports you to another world. Too bad it’s not one a little more relaxing than our own.

Let’s face it: You’re probably not as interested in what Tenet’s about (time travel; or, time-inversion to be specific) or how Tenet looks (slick, clean, stylish) as you are in what it’s like to sit in a communal space for 150 minutes with strangers and not thinking about them coughing. Honestly, it’s not that bad.

But Tenet is not relaxing. The world feels pretty chaotic these days. Here, it’s worse. From the opening siege to the climactic battle, with time moving forward and backward simultaneously, Tenet puts its foot on the gas and keeps it there. There are some meandering jet-setting moments, but the tension never lets up. It’s like a James Bond movie, without the silly parts, or a Batman movie sans brooding. The villain is a Russian arms dealer (Kenneth Branagh) who subscribes to the adage: If I can’t have you, no one can. A sentiment he extends to both his wife (Elizabeth Debicki) and the world. His plan for enforcing both is ridiculously complicated and childishly simple.

Like the rest of Nolan’s oeuvre, Tenet is meant to be seen, re-seen, picked apart, and put back together again. He’s cultivated a career of puzzle box films, and the discussions surrounding MementoThe Prestige, and Inception were just as good as the movies themselves. They prove that audiences do go for thinking summer blockbusters, and in a normal summer, Tenet might have accomplished the same.

Maybe in a couple of years, we’ll revisit Tenet’s simplification of protagonists and antagonists, dissect Nolan’s meta-cinematic approach to storytelling, praise Robert Pattinson’s perfectly calibrated performance, and wonder why a movie studio hasn’t already fashioned a Bond-esque franchise for Washington to anchor. We’ll leave all those for another day. For now, we’ll just marinate in the fact that theatergoing is back, and it feels really, really odd.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Tenet (2020)
Written & directed by Christopher Nolan
Produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Warner Bros., Running time PG-13, Running time 150 minutes, Opened Sept. 3, 2020

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 28, No. 4, “You can’t always get what you want.”