Tenet is exhausting.
Featuring lead performances from John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh, and Elizabeth Debicki, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster ratchets up its entwined time-overlapping narrative over a tiring two and half hour runtime, ultimately creating a mind numbing experience that subdues you into a slumber rather than enriches you with excitement.
The plot, for what it is, is one that requires a pin board, lots of red string, and a bunch of varied colours of pins. Washington is The Protagonist, a name which sounds as absurd as it is on paper as it does coming out of Washington’s mouth when his character introduces himself. After a concerning terrorist attack in a classical music venue, The Protagonist is caught and tortured by the attackers. During the brutal interrogation, he manages to take his assigned ‘suicide pill’, and instead of dying, he wakes up in a ship in the middle of nowhere, with Martin Donovan’s Victor telling The Protagonist that he’s now part of a group that has to try stop WW3.
The group is known by two things: the word Tenet, and the action of interlocking your fingers together. This, apparently, is the key to stopping the world ending at the hands of Branagh’s anglo-Russian villain, Andrei Sator, a brute of a man who has a time-bending Macguffin that also people to move forward and backwards in time. Somewhere, someone in the future created this device, and after continued backward traversal, Sator is here in the now to wreak havoc and do nefarious, anglo-Russian-y things. Pattinson’s Neil joins up with The Protagonist to help get Sator’s abused wife Kat (Debicki) to safety, an act which ideally should help stop WW3 occurring.
This is, from one viewing at least, my perception of the narrative of Tenet, a film that is deliberately obtuse, one that feels like Nolan is reacting to critics of his masterpiece, Inception. A criticism laid upon that film was that it was too exposition heavy, with Ellen Page’s character acting as a tour guide through the plot, explaining everything, while leaving nothing to suggestion. Here, the narrative is all suggestion, with the slightest of hints and signposts leading to the deeper plot threads of the film. No doubt, once eager YouTube creators have had a chance to pull their Pepe Silvia theories together, and flatten the narrative curve of Tenet, it will start to make sense, but in the moment, Nolan gives precious little to help the viewer along the time bending narrative.
Which is the greatest failure of Tenet, the mere wonder of people being able to move forward and backwards in time at a whim becomes rapidly bland and unexciting. Additionally so, Nolan’s penchant for delivering jaw-dropping action sequences that continually set the benchmark for everyone else, is surprisingly missing here. That’s not to say that the action sequences aren’t interesting, it’s just that they’re serviceable at best. The car chase sequence that is shown in the trailers feels like a pastiche of the car chase in The Matrix Reloaded, and while Nolan neatens it up, it still feels, well, old.
A sequence focused around retrieving a Goya-drawing from a labyrinthine art lockdown facility becomes head-scratchingly confusing, never truly announcing its purpose for the grander plot at large until the third act. It is yet another audacious action showpiece from Nolan, with him crashing an actual Boeing 747 into the side of a building. This should be awe inspiring and jaw dropping, but instead feels like plenty of other action sequences we’ve seen time and time again. Nolan loves to push the boundaries of realism, with Dunkirk featuring a jaw-dropping moment where an imitation-bomber plane is crashed into the ocean. Yet, it’s hard to not feel that these sequences often exist to relegate plot into the background, merely acting as spectacle rather than narrative drivers.
Furthering the action frustration is the climactic battle sequence that feels pulled from video games, with a red team working alongside a blue team to disarm an objective. In what is supposed to be the jaw-dropping moment of the film, with armies of faceless soldiers moving backwards and forwards in time together, it is instead a droll and tired sequence of confusion and irritation. A cacophony of noise and rubble makes for a blunt experience, a point exacerbated when it becomes impossible to distinguish friendly from foe, leading to the film wrapping up on a ‘that was it?’ mood. It doesn’t help that the conclusion is so desperately sequel-baiting another film, one that appears to promise a grander, plot-clarifying film that will retroactively make the first one finally make sense.
That confusion and irritation ekes its way throughout the film, with Nolan’s script being the weakest he’s written. It’s full of complex jargon that is made up of conspiracies and need-to-know protocols that become hard to grasp onto, creating an experience that makes you feel dumb for not being able to play catchup right away. Throw in the trademark ‘difficult to hear dialogue’ that has become the norm with Nolan’s films, and you’re left to create a ‘choose your own dialogue’ experience for yourself.
The biggest crime of Tenet would have to be the wasted talent of Elizabeth Debicki. Nolan has struggled with writing women for a long period of time, and Debicki’s Kat is no different. Thrust into the role of damsel in distress, Debicki does her best with the tepid character she’s been delivered, but it’s clear that she’s struggling to make Kat a fully realised character. She’s clearly crafted to imitate the iconic Hitchcock-blonde, yet Nolan appears to only understand the visual style of those iconic roles, and as such, he writes a weak, tired character who he forces the script to focus mostly around.
Nolan has made it clear that he wants to make Bond-esque films, and Tenet is his most deliberately Bond-centric film, working as yet another audition tape for whatever comes post-Craig. It’s here that the main saving grace for Tenet is revealed. John David Washington’s performance here is effortlessly cool, with Washington creating an entrancing character that is genuinely enjoyable to watch. With BlackKklansman and now Tenet under his belt, it’s clear that Washington is going to be a major talent to grow and change over time.
But one great performance in a film that feels tired does little to change the tepid nature of the entirety of Tenet. While it’s simply not possible for directors to create hit after hit, it’s concerning that the heft and weight of Christopher Nolan has lead to a film that appears to be created with no strings attached. This is not to say that there ought to be studio interference, but rather that once a master becomes bigger than their ego can sustain, and their creative prowess becomes an untethered beast, it can create an environment where an overwhelming amount of freedom is afforded. Tenet is a blockbuster created with no studio notes, with a director given free reign to weave whatever complex narrative they so desire. And while I do love a great mind-scratcher, Tenet instead feels like it’s pushing you away from engaging with its deeper plot, rather than inviting you in to engage with it intimately.
Nolan has consistently created cinema-defining films, theatrical experiences that demand your patronage at your local flicker house, and while it’s clear that Tenet is being pushed as the saviour of cinema at large, I fear that the dulling nature of this film will further drive people away from the cinema. Nolan’s films usually invite endless rewatches, with viewers savouring every moment they can of seeing a big-screen spectacle in their IMAX-esque cinema, but I fear that Tenet will be so impenetrable for many viewers that the notion of attending the cinema time and time again during a pandemic will be too much to keep theatres afloat. What was supposed to help may tragically hasten their death.
That’s a bleak statement to close this review on, one that I hope simply does not come true, but it’s a thought I couldn’t help but roll throughout my mind as each minute of Tenet ticked by. In any other time, this film would be critically assessed for what it is – an action film from one of the modern greats – but with the aspect of Covid applied to its release, we can’t help but take that into account when watching this film. Going forward, with the rapidly changing and morphing film distribution protocols taking place, I get the impression that films will be held to a higher standard than usual, with people asking, was this worth me risking my life to see this in a cinema? I can’t answer that for you, with my review suggesting that Tenet may not be such a film, but I do hope that if you embark on a cinema outing that you wear a mask and stay a safe distance from others.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Writer: Christopher Nolan