Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel
Christopher Nolan has been the biggest name in blockbuster filmmaking for about a decade now. As arguably the only director in the world able to mount big budget blockbusters that aren’t based on comic books or best selling young adult novels, he is no stranger to a bold and high stakes release. However, his latest film, the temporal thriller Tenet, is seemingly the most important film of his career. Not for what it means to his trajectory but for what it means for the industry as a whole at this precarious moment in history. The Hollywood studios are caught between a rock and a hard place. Cinemas have reopened in many markets but not in others. Even where they are open, it is not known whether audiences are yet comfortable with the idea of returning to them en mass. As such we have seen studios caught in a holding pattern, sitting on their big releases unsure of the viability of releasing them into the present market. Someone had to be first to take the plunge and that was Warner Brothers. Tenet is the first legitimate blockbuster to be released into the Covid era theatrical market and will serve as a test case for whether theatrical distribution is an economically viable option for Hollywood in the immediate future. It’s an absurd weight to place on any film, particularly one as complex as Tenet.
After acquitting himself well in foiling a terror attack on the Kiev Opera House, an unnamed CIA agent (John David Washington, credited only as ‘The Protagonist’) is approached by a shadowy organisation seeking his help in a most unusual conflict in which the future of humanity, naturally, lies in the balance. Objects have been discovered which appear to be travelling backwards in time – bullets that jump back into guns when the trigger is pulled, that sort of thing. We are told they are “the detritus of a coming war,” one thats impact will be worse than nuclear apocalypse. So our hero, along with his trusted handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), sets off on a globetrotting mission to try and track down various artefacts before they fall into the hands of Russian arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh).
From Memento to The Prestige to Inception, Nolan has shown himself to be a storyteller uninterested conventional narrative structures. Tenet is no different. This is not a time travel movie. That would be too straight forward. Tenet is not about going back in time so much as going backwards in time. On multiple occasions throughout the film different characters have the responsibility of explaining and reiterating the idea of ‘entropy inversion,’ the notion that at some point in the future someone invents a machine that can reverse the direction in which people and things experience time. This is the ace up the sleeve of what is otherwise a relatively conventional espionage thriller, laying the foundations for the narrative to fold back and forth on itself. The first time our protagonist, and by association we, are introduced to the concept, the scientist (Clémence Poésy) who explains it recommends, “Don’t try and understand it. Just feel it.” It is sound advice. Part of the challenge of keeping up with Tenet is that the way it plays with time deprives us of one of the most fundamental schemas we have for understanding narrative – causality. When time is multidirectional, while every effect still has a cause, sometimes the cause doesn’t come first.
Nolan is a filmmaker unafraid of making his audience work. But, surprisingly, it is not the temporal trickery which leaves you scrambling here, but the espionage plot. Tenet is more convoluted than complex. It has all the dressings of a Bond-style spy romp – glamorous international locations, sharp suits, action sequences, though it is notably sexless – however its plot heaviness leaves you constantly unsure of why they are in this city or why they need to get this particular macguffin. The stakes are similarly vague. We are told they are racing to prevent World War III, but it is not quite clear who the conflicting sides are or what they are fighting over.
Despite this muddiness, Tenet is still a very watchable film. Nolan’s fascination with the mechanics of storytelling has previously resulted in his films coming across as a bit cold, more concerned with making you think than making you feel. Tenet, however, has just enough levity and fun to engage you, much of it coming from the cast. Washington and Pattinson share an enjoyable chemistry with both managing to imbue their characters with something more than is contained in their mostly functional and expository dialogue. Elizabeth Debicki is also strong, providing much needed emotional stakes to a plot otherwise devoid of them, as Kat, a mother caught up in the middle of everything interested only in protecting her son.
The watchability is also the result of its unsurprisingly meticulous construction. Nolan knows how to direct large scale action, and with Hoyte Van Hoytema’s crisp IMAX cinematography and Ludwig Goransson’s blaring score it makes for quite a feast. The film contains some impressive set pieces – car chases, plane crashes, reverse bungee jumps – with some made all the more complex by the fact that they involve characters moving different directions in time, which can be quite discombobulating to watch.
Tenet is undoubtedly an ambitious film and in an industry that grows more and more conservative in both form and style, particularly at the end of the financial scale that Nolan is playing at, that is to be applauded. On many fronts it is an impressive piece of work, giving us arresting images and intriguing scenarios and fulfilling its remit to bring spectacle back to the big screen after six months of shutdown. However, it is also possibly Nolan’s most inaccessible film. Where in Inception, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, Nolan combined all of that delicious narrative complexity with a beautiful coherence that means you always understand what you are watching and what is going on, Tenet is likely to leave more than a few viewers feeling a bit stupid for their inability to make sense of its narrative. But as the tale of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ showed, sometimes fear that our lack of intelligence is preventing us from seeing something merely disguises the fact that the thing you are looking for is not actually there.
Review by Duncan McLean
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