Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Elizabeth Debicki, John David Washington, Robert Pattinson
One can only imagine the frustration felt by Christopher Nolan as a juggernaut larger than his own tentpole film took over its release. The feted director’s fixation with controlling time must’ve never seemed so far from his reach as when Covid overtook him. Oh cruel irony.
Now, for many, it’ll be the first film they see back at the cinema after a long hiatus; an experience defined by anxiety and apprehension. These things are going to be distracting. Not something you usually want during a Christopher Nolan movie. Things tend to get a bit… complex…
Since he broke big at the turn of the millennium with Memento, Nolan has always been impressive. His mind works in a certain way. He finds amusement and comfort in levels of intricacy that most of us would rather avoid. Tenet goes perhaps further than even Memento did with it’s juddering chronological manipulations. You could always shuffle events back into order with Memento (or hit the secret button on the DVD menu that did it for you). But with Tenet you’ve got plot points moving forward and backward in front of you, sometimes at the same time. It’s a film he’s designed – shrewdly – so that you have to see it more than once.
While taking pleasure in how clever he’s been in crafting such a caper, he may have forgotten a vital aspect. Getting you to want to.
I’m impressed by Nolan but I rarely feel altogether invested in his work precisely because of how mechanical it feels. I’ve likened his movies to architecture before. They are Brutalist constructions. Grand objects the beat you into submission. They’re granite and concrete and gun casings and cables. Proficient. Often technically marvelous. But also rigid, remote, sexless, emotionless. Tenet doubles down on all of these impulses.
John David Washington’s nameless Protagonist is a case in point. That he is nameless is the first point of concern. We know he’s CIA. We know how’s been recruited to become part of an even shadier intelligence outfit (the ‘Tenet’ of the title), but beyond that we know nothing. Nor will we. He’s a cipher just like most of Nolan’s pawns. They move about the board, upchucking time inversion technobabble and espionage lingo at one another, then they drive, shoot, get shot at, talk more about entropy. Again it’s procedural. Numbing. Nolan condenses his pincer narrative into a deluge of scenes, each in service of the next (or the last), few of them memorable.
Keeping up is tricky. This one feels particularly jumpy in its edits, as though Tenet has been pruned and pruned and pruned to get it down to its hefty 150 minutes. That sense of condensing means that there’s no breathing room. No time to absorb. And – fundamentally – no time to start caring. What this film lacks – that even his lesser efforts managed – is a reason to get invested. Robert Pattinson brings a bit of roguish charm to Neil, our Protagonist’s nominal wing man. But it’s nowhere near enough. Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat – unhappily married to Kenneth Branagh’s ridiculous supervillain Andrei Sator – is what any woman is in a Nolan movie; a bargaining chip, an object of desire and nothing more. Still, she wrings a bit of something out of it, when she can. Branagh is a time-bending, moustache-twiddling Bond baddie; out to end the world by… well… good luck with that.
Get used to the idea that not everything is going to happen forwards and Tenet is, in a manner of speaking, direct. As Neil keeps saying, “Whatever happened, happened”. The narrative thrust is always what’s next – even if what’s next already happened. But it’s thunderingly chaotic and deeply uninteresting to follow.
Not only is the exposition endless, it’s often unintelligible. Nolan does his absolute best to make it difficult to hear people, either with masks, engine noise, bad reception or by ramming over them with Ludwig Göransson’s deafening score. The love of practical effects is to be commended, and they are very impressive… in a sense. But they’re also not that far removed from the brainless destructo-pleasures of Michael Bay. It is so often simply about a car or a building or a plane going smashy-smashy very, very loudly.
Things get better as they go on (or back). Tenet sort of finds momentum around the middle when it starts snapping in on itself, and you can feel the potential for what it could be. But it loses it again with a bad-guy-base assault that lacks adequate definition. This is when Debicki takes control of the film because, honestly, she’s all you’ve got left to cling onto.
I hope this marks Nolan getting a lot of bad tendencies out of his system in one fell swoop. Inception showed us how badly he’s wanted to make a Bond film. He’s all-but done it now. Everything has told us how much he wants to invert the flow of time. Another box checked. Maybe with Tenet done and dusted he can move on and evolve again (one might argue that he’s plateaued since The Dark Knight, though that’s quite the plateau). But this is one hell of an expensive way to work through your indulgences.
Nolan’s good at iconic images. One of the more memorable set pieces here involves hundreds of bars of gold tumbling out the back of a plane. It awkwardly sums up this expensive folly. How many millions has one man got to go through just to move on? No wonder he’s worried about not recouping.
Throughout the first hour of Tenet I seriously contemplated walking out, I felt so bludgeoned and bored. Once I got to the end, I wished that I could invert time. I’d have gone back two hours to tell myself to trust my instincts.
I’ll acknowledge that there are bravura technical moments here that by themselves grant Tenet a 4 out of 10, but in my heart it’s a bit less than that.