When a revolutionary technology that can reverse time is discovered, a secret agent is dispatched to uncover its secrets and prevent the fabric of reality from destroying itself.
Tenet is renowned filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s latest foray into exploring the nature of time. After the likes of Memento (2000), Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), Nolan clearly has a fascination with the metaphysical; an obsession with taking audiences on an explorative ride through the perception of time. With Tenet, the filmmaker offers his most complex and densely layered film yet, making the likes of Inception feel downright simple by comparison. It is unabashed in its desire to be unpacked by the filmmaker’s doting fans, designed to be re-watched, not just watched.
It is also the filmmaker operating at his most egotistical. Nolan has often been cited as a modern ‘auteur’, one of the few remaining names in the industry capable of generating massive box-office receipts with any film he pleases, helming his productions with a singular, airtight vision. Tenet is no exception, filled to the brim with his trademarks: an unconventional narrative structure, elliptical editing, a dedication to practical effects and a loud, permeating score. Only this time, no element has been reined in in the slightest, and each trademark is sent into overdrive. The result is a film that feels as though Nolan is seeing just how far he can push his proclivities on a general audience, yet rather than create a film that understands and respects their intelligence (as his films can skilfully do), Tenet is an abstruse exercise in patience. What makes it extra irritating is that, for anyone to even begin to understand what is actually going on, a strong understanding and experience in time travel fiction is needed. The problem here is that, while the mechanics of the picture are ridiculously convoluted, the plot’s revelations are woefully predictable to anyone with that needed genre awareness. To be lurched between confusion and simple deduction so frequently in this way leads to Tenet eliciting one consistent emotion: apathy.
That’s not to say there aren’t the sparks of the excitement usually found in Nolan’s films. The action is helmed phenomenally, and the central gimmick of the story leads to some incredibly creative and exciting action set pieces. With the aid of his frequent cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, Nolan has created yet another stunning action film, packed with special effects so convincing that it is impossible to tell the practical from the digital. There are also some grippingly tense scenes that are so well written, directed and performed that even in moments where you aren’t quite sure what is happening, the full weight of the situation can be felt clamping down. Each actor gives their best to their roles, with leads John David Washington and Robert Pattinson filling what could be relatively empty characters with their own input of personality. Elizabeth Debicki is equally as excellent, without a doubt being the emotional lynchpin in what could have been a cold sci-fi story. Kenneth Branagh also plays well against type as a truly despicable villain, and somehow manages to pull off a Bond-like baddie in a film that takes itself far more seriously than a 007 adventure.
After watching Tenet, brewing on it for a bit and discussing it with friends, I do feel like I have a pretty clear grasp of the narrative. Yet, even with the semi-understanding I had while watching it, and the greater understanding I have now, I still return to feeling a sense of apathy. For all its interesting moments, its sparks of excitement and its solid acting, I can’t say that Tenet is as smart or engaging as it thinks it is. Without spoiling its narrative machinations, I can say that the ultimate conceit of Tenet is interesting, but hardly anything beyond a Steven Moffat-penned episode of Doctor Who. The concept is just inherently a bit daft, even when it is used to create increasingly cool spectacle, and the seriousness with which Nolan imbues Tenet strips it of any potential for more fittingly pulpy entertainment. A crazy time-warp gimmick like this absolutely needs to have a cast of interesting, dynamic characters and a solid sense of humour behind it, with intelligent dialogue that is witty, not just vaguely scientific. Tenet has none of these. Its characters are all kept at arm’s length, its sense of humour sparse, and its dialogue ranging from excessively expository to downright poor. Tenet suffers from cringe-worthy pretentiousness at times, such as its central character having no name but instead being referred to as “The Protagonist” throughout, who faces several “Antagonists” on his journey. Who Nolan is trying to appeal to with this is unclear. Fans of high school literature classes? Other screenwriters? His own ego? There’s even a cameo from Nolan favourite Sir Michael Caine, whose name is revealed to be… Sir Michael. It’s random, fourth-wall breaking writing like this that often creeps in to the worst of an auteur director’s films, always coming off as corny, not clever.
As a result, I don’t know if I can recommend Tenet confidently. Three separate families walked out of my screening before the halfway point, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing the same. It is ridiculously obscure for the first half, and once the film begins to clear up by the second it still suffers from shallow characters and tepid sentiment. Even the sound mix seems to be against the audience; looking online I found multiple complaints against this and yes, for some baffling reason, Tenet seems to purposefully mix important dialogue at a low mumble beneath ear-piercing explosions and music. Nevertheless, I can still see many loving its heady sci-fi sensibility, its occasionally clever moments and its utterly astonishing visual filmmaking. That the film has insisted to release during a global pandemic makes it even harder to recommend – I wouldn’t say it is worth it if puts you or anyone else at risk. Perhaps when it releases for home viewing, it might benefit from the ability to pause it once in a while (and turning on the subtitles). Neither spectacular failure nor roaring success, Tenet is Christopher Nolan proudly showing the world how his filmmaking ambitions are escalating into excess.
Author: Tom, Chelsea store