Director: Christopher Nolan Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Brannagh Running Time: 151 minutes
Perhaps as technically masterful a director as there is working today, Christopher Nolan nevertheless attracts criticism for crafting films that attack the senses and overload the brain but can leave the heart untouched. Ask him to lay out the machine of a scene, to make a movie ‘work’ or the story ‘break’ in the strict and structural screenplay sense, and there may be no better director for the job; producers and studios have an unparalleled and to this point justified trust in Nolan to handle extras, explosions, equipment on set, to keep on track, manage money, and deliver enormous Triple A Blockbusters that get audiences on masse into the cinema. Making it moving that these things are happening however, is not always the man’s skillset, nor is it always his priority.
After his efforts to tug at the heartstrings within movies like Interstellar were mostly met with teasing or indifference, you can at least understand why he would refocus and double down on his strengths. Dunkirk felt like a director at his most assured; with the audience’s emotional attachment to what was happening safely confined to a matter of dramatic irony (It’s WW2! It’s the goodies! You already care!), Nolan was free to flex with the technical aspects, another big problem successfully handled. The heart of the story, to Nolan, is just another wire in the complex network, one piece of the potential bomb ticking down to opening night: where does it fit, should he snip it, did it work, oh another 200 million dollars, slightest exhale through the nostrils, day saved, world keeps spinning, on to the next one.
Insofar as his movies reflect anything about reality at all, they reflect this process. Nolan films are about operating in fine margins and are centred on men who through sheer force of will, wrestle control over concepts that are abstract, enormous and intractable – justice, time, memory, comic book fan expectations…
What 2020 has demonstrated of course is that you cannot control everything all the time. What has seemed like Nolan’s insistence that the release of Tenet proceed as normal during this very Not Normal era is probably not so much malicious supervillainy as it is the tunnel vision of someone who has overseen a project that he can only perceive one way: a massive theatrical release; a big, loud blockbuster. After watching the film, this insistence is symptomatic of what makes Tenet a very hard film to enjoy; it’s a product and a creative force caught in a feedback loop. Tenet is Christopher Nolan at his most Ozymandian. Mighty, boundless and bare.
Beginning mid set-piece, Tenet introduces John David Washington as an American agent infiltrating a terrorist attack in Ukraine. He is shown as a consummate pro and dedicated soldier tied above all else to the cause. The action is flawlessly staged, intricately assembled and utterly irrelevant other than to keep the story propelling forwards, a sign of things to come. Washington, never named, is assigned as ‘Protagonist’; for his skill and diligence he is tasked by whatever organisation employs him to prevent an apocalyptic event being orchestrated by…’Antagonists’. Maybe this is Nolan being wry but assigning the players in Tenet this way is an indicator of how much character and motivation are played down in favour of moving chess pieces on a really big board. Brought into a shadowy operation and introduced to mind-bending concepts and extraordinary threats, “Protagonist” understands little, wants less and stands for nothing. He is just ‘the protagonist’, from the Greek: primary and a participant and not much else. He has an assignment and he proceeds. Much of the film is presented on this operational basis, always moving, establishing objectives and attending to them procedurally. Washington oozes presence, he commands a screen, but he isn’t called on here to do so with much more purpose than your computer’s cursor.
Travelling across the world to meet a variety of exposition providers, including Martin Donovan, Clémence Poesy, Michael Caine and Dimple Kapadia, Protagonist gets the gist of the necessary intel. ‘Inverted’ technology can cause objects and people to move backwards through time, and the mysterious Antagonists of the future are sending weapons back to now. An inverted bullet is shown to be exceedingly dangerous, and the threat of even more severe weapons on the way hangs heavily. Dealing in inverted arms has made a powerful man of oligarch Andrei Sator, a snarling tiger with a Movie Russkie accent played by Kenneth Branagh. Along with resourceful handler Neil (a wry Robert Pattinson’s Oxbridge agent), Protagonist plots to infiltrate Sator’s operation, before it all goes nuclear, or worse.
Part of this plan involves our hero getting close to Sator’s miserably estranged wife Kat, played by Elizabeth Debicki. In so far as Tenet tries to have an emotional core, it’s in Kat. Trapped in an unhappy marriage with a brute, while the other characters are moving backwards and forwards through time, she longs to do either but feels held forever in place, Sator dangling access to their son over her as a tether. Debicki capably portrays her character’s fear and fury and Nolan may feel like he can’t win for trying, however swapping his often-mocked dead wife tropes for an abused one isn’t a massive step up. Rather than grounding the story emotionally, it’s off-putting to see this massive movie’s only room for sentimentality is consumed with this downbeat damsel story.
Growing closer to Kat is also supposed to be key to Protagonist’s personal journey, risking his big-picture operation by getting too drawn to this individual, yet providing the personal investment to motivate our hero. It doesn’t really come off though, because Debicki and Washington’s performances are too distant for anything meaningful to grow between them, and so much of the film is more focused on explaining plot mechanics than developing the characters. When somebody explains the threat that could destroy the world and Debicki flatly responds “and that includes my son”, it feels like a grimly humorous display of Nolan treating personal stakes as a box-ticking exercise. His attention is drawn more easily and is much better used elsewhere.
When the set-pieces and the ‘inverted’ sections do get going, Tenet is impressive. A backwards and forwards highway chase in particular may be some of the finest work Nolan has ever done, his ambition to keep a thousand moving parts of sound, score, props, practical effects and physical acting in perfect sync achieving the effect of completely gripping the senses. Nolan megafans will be enraptured by the precision of fight scenes that need two views to make sense of, and the little details that pay off to perfection the more the film fiddles with its fast forward and rewind. Others will balk at Nolan’s vision being, similarly to Inception, more ambition than imagination, left cold by a time travel gimmick that amounts to “what if bullets could go back into guns?” The characters travel the globe from bustling Indian cities to gorgeous Euro seaside locals to dusty battlefields, risking their bodies and their worlds in split-second complicated capers, it is all very pretty and expensive and overwhelming and empty.
With so much going on at all times, it comes down to how interested you are in the many explanations of who and what is going what way and how and when. If you are earnestly trying to follow along, it can get frustrating that Nolan’s commitment to white-knuckle sensory engagement makes story details even harder to grasp; a lot of talking is drowned out in the sound mixing. Not to poke fun, but there is honestly a sound effect of sun cream squirting from a bottle that came through louder and clearer than a lot of key dialogue. Somehow, the noise of sun cream squirting – like explosions, crashes and whirring engines – is legitimately more important for us to hear for meticulous but dispassionate plot reasons, than the characters’ aims and desires and personalities. During the film’s runtime Kat hears more from a bottle of Piz Buin than from the son for whom she would risk everything.
The film builds and builds to an unwieldy breaking point, a battle between armies of time guys that is narratively and visually incomprehensible. After getting the ‘inversion mechanic’ to work in smaller action scenes, Nolan has to top himself still further by using it in an extended war sequence of helicopters, armies, collapsing buildings. Everything and nothing is happening all at once. Hoyte van Hoytema is a dab hand at capturing Nolan’s ideas in impressive widescreens, they just become too easy to zone out of.
After all the external hassle over when and if the film would be released, and all Nolan’s preoccupations with the functions of time, it’s appropriate that the alienating issue with Tenet is a temporal crisis. Similarly but more so than many Nolan films, it exists for viewers to anticipate watching and to enjoy having had watched. The actual experience, in the now, moment-to-moment is a secondary concern, the perfunctory piece in between fans analysing what the film will be and making “Ending Explaining videos” and Reddit threads explaining what it was, the necessary go-between the online hype and box office receipts. As an individual viewer, you may previously have been exhilarated and engaged by Nolan, or you may have exhausted and confused by him. As a viewer of Tenet, it ultimately felt irrelevant that I was even there at all, left on the outside of a film that is lost in itself, in perpetual motion, detached and impenetrable.(2.5 / 5)